Copenhagen: Success for Some, Catastrophe for Most

 Politicians and bureaucrats from large developing countries and some developed ones are congratulating themselves for having protected their traditional industries at the Copenhagen climate summit. But for the vast majority of people around the world already affected by global warming, it has been a disaster.

The summit saw no movement over one of the two fundamental questions in the fight against climate change -- to what extent are industrialized countries willing to cut, under a legally binding treaty, their emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) that are warming the world.

On the contrary, the weak Copenhagen Accord has taken the teeth out of the legally binding treaty for the purpose, the Kyoto Protocol. And it all happened because the summit "could not end in failure", in the words of UN chief Ban Ki-moon.

India's Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has said that with the Copenhagen Accord "we now have a fourth animal to contend with" in climate negotiations. But with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Kyoto Protocol and the Bali Action Plan still in place, the accord is a toothless animal.

Its only action plan is that industrialized countries will inform the UNFCCC secretariat by Jan 31 the extent to which they will cut their GHG emissions after 2012 -- when the current phase of the legally binding Kyoto Protocol runs out -- and the emerging economies will tell what they plan to do to control their emissions. No one will be legally bound to any commitment.

Given that many industrialized countries have not stuck to the promises they had made under the Kyoto Protocol, what are the chances that anyone will stick to non-binding commitments?

"Almost none," said K. Srinivas of Greenpeace, who has been observing climate negotiations for many years.

Instead what has happened is that traditional industries in both industrialized and emerging economies have got a fresh lease of life. Unless their governments force them, they do not have to plan to cut GHG emissions. And if the debate in the Indian parliament after the summit was any indication, no such force will be applied. Opposition MPs fell over each other to castigate the government for the little it had yielded in terms of international "advice and consultations" of its emissions control efforts, while the government was at pains to say it had defended national sovereignty at all costs.

Ramesh went to the extent of saying: "I had not gone to Copenhagen to save the world but to save India's interests." There is no doubt that India's interests require a sharp rise in energy output -- over 400 million people in this country are still not connected to the grid, as UNFCCC Executive Secretary Yvo de Boer has pointed out repeatedly -- but to do that primarily through traditional coal-based power plants will mean that a few years down the line, they will have to be dismantled and greener sources of power found. That is exactly what China is being forced to do now -- a Chinese government official said in Copenhagen that the country now dismantles one old coal-fired power plant every week while it puts up another more efficient plant somewhere else in the country. The dismantling obviously comes at a huge cost.

The UNFCCC secretariat has calculated that even if all industrialized countries stick to the GHG emission reduction promises they have made till now, the earth is headed for a three-degree Celsius temperature rise. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- a consortium of over 2,500 scientists around the globe -- has said that any rise above two degrees would have "unforeseen and catastrophic" consequences.

Right now the earth has warmed almost a degree due to GHG emissions by humans, and the effects are already showing in lowered farm output, more frequent and more severe droughts, floods and storms and a rise in the sea level. India has been categorized in a recent study to be the seventh most vulnerable country.

So the question remains, whose interest is being safeguarded by giving in the least possible at international negotiations. Ramesh says India should follow China's example of "doing the maximum at home and giving in the minimum internationally", but policies in India are subject to many more pulls and pressures than those in China.

If the Copenhagen outcome has been bad for India's poor, it has been disastrous for the least developed countries, especially those consisting of small islands that can be devoured by the rising seas. Little wonder that they were most unhappy with what happened at Copenhagen, though their ire should also have been directed at industrialised nations, not just at the emerging economies they accused of abandoning them.

There was some movement on the second fundamental question -- to what extent are rich nations willing to pay poor nations to cope with climate change effects.

A $30 billion fund is being set up for the next three years, far lower than the $75 billion a year required by the poor countries, according to the most conservative estimate, made by the World Bank. But it's better than nothing, and there is a promise by the US to raise $100 billion a year by 2020. The European Union (EU) had once promised to raise 100 billion euro (about 1.5 times $100 billion), though no one talked about it any more in Copenhagen. Anyway, all these figures are up in the air, with little detail on how the money will be raised. No country can include this in its economic plan.

Now negotiators will have to start working on the Kyoto Protocol -- or whatever will replace it -- and long-term cooperative action to fight climate change all over again, always knowing that whatever progress they make in the small areas may be nullified by disagreements over the big ones. Given the current situation, there is no reason to believe they will be able to stick to the deadline of finishing negotiations by the next summit at the end of 2010. So, there may be no legally binding treaty after 2012 to reduce GHG emissions, after the current phase of the Kyoto Protocol comes to an end.

(Joydeep Gupta can be contacted at


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