Three lessons from Copenhagen

by Brahma Chellaney

The world now accepts that protecting our atmosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, biosphere and even cyberspace — the “global commons” — is the responsibility of all countries. Enforcing that norm is proving the difficult part.

And nowhere is the difficulty greater than in two areas: shielding our atmosphere from the buildup of global-warming greenhouse gases; and preventing cybercrime.

Of these two challenges, combating climate change is proving most difficult to crack. The reason for that is not hard to seek: effectively combating climate change demands fundamental shifts in national policies and approaches, as well as lifestyle changes in the developed world. It is easier to visualize than to actually devise carbon standards that can protect the material and social benefits of continued economic growth in the developing world and also help shield prosperity in the developed countries.

International climate-change negotiations are to be renewed this year. To be successful, they must heed the lessons of Copenhagen.

The first lesson is that climate change is not just a matter of science but also a matter of geopolitics. Without improved geopolitics, there can be no real fight against climate change. The expectation at Copenhagen that scientific-research results would trump geopolitics was belied.

The need to focus on improving the geopolitics is also being highlighted by the damage, however limited, to the independence of scientific research. The credibility of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has taken a beating since the Copenhagen summit, to the delight of climate-change skeptics. Just before Copenhagen we had “climate-gate,” as the publication of damaging e-mail and other documents from the Climate Research Unit at Britain’s University of East Anglia became known, exposing highly politicized scientific research in the form of manipulated or suppressed data on human-driven climate change. After Copenhagen has came the IPCC’s own “glacier-gate” scandal over one of its key claims in a 2007 report.

The IPCC had to admit that its published claim that the Himalayan glaciers are set to disappear by 2035 — rested not on peer-reviewed scientific research but on two 1999 magazine interviews with one glaciologist — a claim which had been recycled in a 2005 report by the environmental campaign group, World Wide Fund For Nature, and then enthusiastically picked up by the IPCC without any investigation. To IPCC’s acute mortification, the glaciologist went public after Copenhagen to say he had been misquoted in the magazine interviews.

To make matters worse, the coordinating lead author of the portion of the IPCC report, where the claim appeared, publicly acknowledged that the bogus claim had been intentionally incorporated to help put political pressure on Asian leaders.

The second lesson from Copenhagen is that to get an international deal, there first must be a deal between the U.S. and China. These two countries are very dissimilar, yet they have a similar carbon profile: Each contributes between 22 to 24 percent of all human-induced greenhouse gases in the world.

If a deal can be reached between the world’s two greatest polluting nations, which together are responsible for more than 46 percent of all greenhouse-gas emissions, an international accord on climate change would be easier to reach. The United States and China, however, view the world in starkly different terms. The key point that has emerged from their latest diplomatic spats is China’s reluctance to subordinate domestic goals for larger international good, be it a climate-change regime or international efforts to put pressure scofflaw states. It also is unwilling to give up unfair practices, such as the gross undervaluation of the renminbi.

The Cold War undertones in U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent statement — likening the “information curtain” to the Iron Curtain — reflected an implicit admission that the central assumption guiding U.S. policy on China since the 1990s has gone awry: that assisting China’s economic rise would usher in political opening there. The strategy to use market forces and the Internet to open up a closed political system simply isn’t working. Indeed, the more economic power China has accumulated, the more adept it has become in extending censorship controls.

China strategically seems to bide its time until it can openly challenge the present U.S.-led global institutional structure, which has remained static since the mid-20th century. China accepts and supports parts of the existing order that serves its needs, such as the U.N. Security Council or the World Trade Organization. But it plays by its own rules when its interests do not mesh with the other parts.

In Copenhagen, China did everything to ensure no binding agreement emerged. To impede decision-making, it sent only a vice foreign minister to meetings set for the level of heads of government. It also used poor states as a front to obstruct progress through procedural wrangling.

Against that background, prospects of China and the U.S. cutting a deal on climate deal this year don’t look good. If anything, their disputes on trade, currency and security policies threaten to engender greater bilateral tensions and conflict.

A third lesson from Copenhagen, being reinforced by the present circumstances, is to have a more-realistic agenda. Too much focus has been put on carbon cuts for nearly two decades, almost to the exclusion of other elements. It is now time to disaggregate the climate-change agenda into smaller, more manageable parts. After all, a lot can be done without a binding agreement on carbon cuts through national targets.

Take energy efficiency, which can help bring a quarter of all gains in reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions. Energy inefficiency is a problem not only in the Third World, but also in the developed world. The U.S., for instance, belches out twice as much carbon dioxide per head as Japan, although the two countries have fairly similar per capita incomes.

Furthermore, given that deforestation accounts for as much as 20 percent of the emission problem, carbon storage is as important as carbon cuts. Each hectare of rain forest, for example, stores 500 tons of carbon dioxide. Forest conservation and management thus are important to tackle climate change. In fact, to help lessen the impact of climate change, states need to strategically invest in ecological restoration — growing and preserving rain forests, building wetlands and shielding species critical to our ecosystems

The international community must also focus on stemming man-made environmental change. Environmental change is distinct from climate change, although there is a tendency on the part of some enthusiasts to blur the distinction and turn global warming into a blame-all phenomenon.

Man-made environmental change is caused by reckless land use, overgrazing, depletion and contamination of surface freshwater resources, overuse of groundwater, degradation of coastal ecosystems, inefficient or environmentally unsustainable irrigation systems, waste mismanagement, and the destruction of natural habitats, including mangroves and forests. Such environmental change has no link to global warming. Yet, ultimately, it will contribute to climate variation and thus must be stopped.

In fact, man-made environmental change is the main threat to the integrity of freshwater reserves in the world. Water shortages already are reaching critical proportions in several parts of the world. And this has a bearing on food security. This suggests that goals of food security increasingly will be difficult to achieve. The World Bank has projected the demand for food to rise 50 percent by 2030, even as the present global food system struggles to meet existing demand. Today, agriculture makes up more than two-thirds of all water withdrawals globally, while contributing 14 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions — about as much as running every car, ship and plane. To grow more food demands more water. But water availability already is coming under pressure in the most densely-populated parts of the world.

In that light, we need to focus as much on the water challenge as on the energy challenge. As the Global Trends 2025 report of the U.S. National Intelligence Council has warned that although strategic rivalries in the 21st century probably would center on issues related to trade, investment, technology innovation and acquisition, “increasing worries about resources — such as energy or even water — could easily put the focus back on territorial disputes or unresolved border issues. Asia is one region where the number of such border issues is particularly noteworthy.”

Climate change and environmental change, given their implications for resource security and social and economic stability, are clearly threat multipliers. While continuing to search for a binding international agreement, the international community should also explore innovative approaches, such as global public-private partnership initiatives. As the international experience since the 1992 U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change bears out, it is easier to set goals than to implement them. How many state parties to the Kyoto Protocol have faithfully implemented their obligations on carbon cuts under that treaty?

The political commitments reached in principle at Copenhagen already have run into controversy as well as into varying interpretations, marring their value. They also have created bad blood between the BASIC bloc of four leading developing countries and the broader grouping of developing nations known as the Group of 77 (G77). The smaller countries in the G77 accuse the BASIC bloc of China, India, Brazil and South Africa of acting unilaterally and opaquely in stitching together that nonbinding agreement with the U.S. in Copenhagen.

The “Copenhagen Accord,” an ad hoc, face-saving agreement at the eleventh hour to cover up the summit failure, seeks to commit major developing countries to “implement mitigation actions,” open to “international consultations and analysis.”

Its future, however, is uncertain. Only 55 of the 194 countries submitted their national action plans on climate change by the January 31 deadline, forcing the U.N. to push back the deadline indefinitely.

The BASIC bloc indeed is a partnership founded on political opportunism and is unlikely to hold for long. The carbon profiles of Brazil, India, South Africa and China are hardly similar. China’s per capita carbon emissions are more than four times higher than India’s. It rejects India’s approach that per capita emission levels and historic contributions to the buildup of greenhouse gases should form the objective criteria for carbon mitigation. China, as the world’s back factory, wants a different formula that marks down carbon intensity linked to export industries. Once criteria for mitigation action are sought to be defined in future negotiations, this alliance will unravel quickly.

More broadly, the climate-change agenda has become so politically driven that all sorts of competing economic and other interests have been tagged on by important actors. Climate change should not be allowed to become a convenient peg on which to hang assorted national interests.

Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.