Consequences of fuzzy targets


LONDON — Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National Party, is a “soft” fascist who does not rant in the 1930s style. But he came pretty close to the old style two months ago when, newly elected to the European Parliament, he called for “very tough” measures to stop illegal African migrants from entering the European Union by crossing the Mediterranean in boats.

Interviewed afterward by the BBC, he said: “Frankly, they need to sink several of those boats.” The interviewer interrupted him, protesting that the EU does not murder people.

“I didn’t say anybody should be murdered at sea,” Griffin replied. “I say boats should be sunk. They can throw them a life raft, and they can go back to Libya. Europe has sooner or later to close its borders or it’s going to be swamped by the Third World.”

It’s standard neofascist rhetoric, and the people who use it are still shunned by the mainstream of European politics. But if the Copenhagen climate summit in December does not make a serious start at getting climate change under control, that may be mainstream rhetoric in Europe in 20 years’ time.

The poorer countries closer to the equator will be hit first and worst by global warming. As their crops die from heat and too little water, huge numbers of climate refugees will head north — out of Mexico and Central America to the United States, out of Africa and the Middle East to the EU. Griffin-style talk will start to sound reasonable, and the southern borders of Europe and the U.S. will become fortified.

So there is some comfort to be had from last week’s offer by Japan’s next prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, to cut his country’s emissions to 25 percent below the 1990 level by 2020.

That is a huge advance on the previous Japanese government’s offer of an 8 percent cut by 2020. It brings the country into the zone of 25 to 40 percent cuts by 2020 that was set as a target for developed countries by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Since the EU has already adopted a target of 20-percent emission cuts on 1990 levels by 2020, with a promise to go to 30 percent cuts at the Copenhagen talks if other industrialized countries do the same, there now seems to be a serious offer on the table. Unfortunately, there is also a catch.

The catch is that Japan’s 25 percent offer and the EU’s 30 percent offer both depend on other developed countries — by which they mean the U.S. — adopting a similar target. But President Barack Obama isn’t promising any cut at all on the 1990 level of U.S. emissions. He’s just offering to get back to that level by 2020, citing as an excuse the growth of U.S. emissions during eight years of denial under the Bush administration.

It doesn’t really work as an excuse. Japan is also significantly over its 1990 level at the moment. To get 25 percent below that level by 2020, it has to cut total emissions by almost a third in the next 10 years. The real reason Obama cannot offer a similar cut is political.

As IPCC head Rajendra Pachauri said last March: “He [Obama] is not going to say by 2020 I’m going to reduce emissions by 30 percent. He’ll have a revolution on his hands. He has to do it step by step.” Many Americans are just emerging from denial or have yet to do so, and Obama cannot drive the process of change faster than the public will accept.

Both the Europeans and the Japanese know that the U.S. is not going to offer deep cuts at Copenhagen, so they will not have to deliver on their own offers. And if the industrialized countries do not commit to really deep cuts, then rapidly developing countries like China and India will not accept even the fuzziest constraints on their own emissions.

So what can be accomplished at Copenhagen? Not much in terms of hard targets, probably, but the game does not end there. This problem won’t go away, and we will all be back around the negotiating table before long. Meantime, there is one really valuable thing that Obama could achieve at Copenhagen.

The game of percentage cuts on past emissions is fundamentally stupid. To avoid the risk of runaway heating, we cannot exceed an average global temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius since 1990. That equates to 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and we are already at 390 ppm. So you can work out quite easily how much more carbon dioxide we can afford to dump into the atmosphere in the rest of this century.

That’s the right target, and making it official would transform the negotiating process. We would then be dealing with real numbers, and the negotiations would be about dividing up the remaining permissible emissions between developed and developing countries.

It was Obama who pushed all 20 high-emitting countries into accepting 2 degrees Celsius as the never-exceed limit on global warming at the Group of Eight and Group of 20 summit in Italy, so we’re already halfway there. Maybe at Copenhagen he’ll drop the other shoe.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.