So, what’s up in Copenhagen?
As the stage is being set for the much talked about Climate change Conference, Pandit ji offers some useful tips on what to look out for in the mega ‘do’
Panditji: Ahh! If there was a contest for the ‘most-frequently-asked question’ in December, 2009, this one would be the undisputed winner. No, no, the buzz is not limited only within a closed circuit of experts— scientists, bureaucrats, and environmentalists. It has reached common citizens like you and me. A humungous proportion of people, from school teachers to shop keepers, from cab drivers to
Godhuli: Hey, we believe you, we believe you. How can we not, with Copenhangen jumping out at us every time we tune into a news channel—in the television or the radio.
Shamik: I am cross-eyed with confusion and my ears are ringing! Oh we know that it is a summit on Climate Change. We also know that all countries, India included, are squabbling bitterly over how many tonnes of greenhouse gases (GHG) they have the right to emit, and how many tonnes do the others have to reduce to clean up the global atmosphere. Numbers are being flung out at random by every camp. Panditji, what is up in Copenhagen?
Panditji: Hmm. I think you need a dose of basic facts to cure yourself. Don’t worry, here it comes. You see, the noise may be deafening now, but the world has been talking about Climate Change for over 20 years! In 1988, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) set up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to find out why some climatologists had begun to ring the alarm signals furiously--claiming that the Earth was getting unnaturally, unhealthily warm. And that human ‘interference’ was responsible for this rising heat. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) was
Shamik: What was the purpose of the UNFCC? Do the members have a specific goal before them?
Panditji: (smiles) Yes, a very lofty goal indeed. The UNFCC pledges to stabilize greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system, in a time frame that would allow ecosystems to adapt to change, naturally. In other words, its job is to keep the global mean temperature under a tight leash, by setting stringent targets to cut GHG emissions, so that the Planet can recover (as far as possible!) from the damages inflicted on it by us, and get used to the impacts of Climate Change at a pace that is natural and hence less catastrophic.
Every year, the member countries meet to take stock of how far they have moved towards achieving this goal, and what else needs to be done to make the job easier. These meetings are called the Conference of Parties (CoP). The Copenhagen meet is the fifteenth CoP.
Godhuli: Fifteenth! So a lot must have happened till now.
Panditji: Yes, a lot of glib talk and a lot more acrid dialogues. Not much else, I am afraid. But first let me explain why this 15th meet is so significant.
Shamik: Yes, I am curious. Why are we so keenly watching Copenhagen?
Panditji: The reason is what happened in the third CoP, which took place in Kyoto, Japan. On December 7, 1997, the CoP adopted the Kyoto Protocol. This was a major step forward. Why? Because the Protocol for the first time put binding targets for emission reduction on the industrialised nations (referred to as Annex 1 countries under the UNFCC).
It laid down that these countries must decrease their emissions by 6-8 per cent from the levels recorded in 1990. And they must do so within the period 2008-12. Predictably, the developed world was in a tizzy. The US rejected it outright, and the Protocol could not come into effect till 2005, as it required 55 nations accounting for 55 per cent of global CO2 to ratify it.
Godhuli: But that’s so unfair! These nations created the crisis in the first place, by pumping in gigantic volumes of CO2 in the air for more than a century! They gobbled up everyone’s share of the common atmospheric space. Now they refuse to take responsibility of cleaning it up or to make space for the others.
But I still don’t understand why the Copenhagen summit is creating such ripples.
Panditji: You see, the Kyoto Protocol will expire in 2012. In Copenhagen the member nations will have to decide the future course of action. Currently, the scenario is pretty awful. None of the targets have been met. Emissions levels, in fact, have risen sharply. Between 1990 and 2006, CO2 emissions of the Annex 1 nations have increased by as much as 14.5 per cent!. The US, the biggest offender, still refuses to sign up and take commitments. So what will the members do in Copenhagen? Will they give the Kyoto Protocol yet another chance and set a second commitment period? Will they scrap the Protocol altogether and opt for another, more developed nation-friendly, agreement? Will the developing world, led by countries with growing global clout like India and China, agree to such arrangements? Why should they? All these issues are up in the air. (Nods his head thoughtfully) Yes indeed, the Copenhagen show is interesting to watch.
Shamik: Tell us, Panditji, who do you think is responsible for Climate Change and this never ending debate surrounding it? It only seems to grown shriller every year!
Panditji: Look, way back in 1988, the UN General Assembly had officially noted that while Climate Change is a ‘common concern of mankind’, “the largest part of the current emission of pollutants…. originates in developed countries…. those countries have the main responsibility for combating such pollution”. But even after two decades the question ‘who is responsible?’ remains at the centre of all climate negotiations. Obviously, no one is willing to take the blame. The fact is it does matter how much each country has emitted in the past. Because GHGs have the disturbing habit of staying in the atmosphere for very long periods. Every tonne we emit pump up temperatures for years to come.
The present also matters. Like you said Godhuli, some nations will have to reduce their use of common atmospheric space so that others can be squeezed in! But the most critical question today is how do we plan our future?. Time has run out for us and we have already spent our budget as far as carbon is concerned. The only way we can keep afloat is by cutting what we emit, and just forget about emitting more.
Godhuli: But Panditji, how will the economies of the developing nations grow if they are not permitted to emit at all? Energy use is linked to growth. We cannot have one without the other. So we shall remain poorer and hence less powerful than the Annex 1 countries forever? Why should we be forced to share the burden of responsibility? I don’t agree with this at all!!
Panditji: Even I don’t agree with this, and neither does the developing country block. But we cannot afford to shrug off responsibility. The situation as we know is extremely desperate. So the details of how this burden should be shared has to be worked out carefully. How? Well, the gases that the developed nations pumped into the air since the late 1800s are still up there. This is the natural debt that these countries will have to repay. In other words, they will have to shoulder the burden of reducing so that the developing countries can increase their share. They cannot tell us to take emission cuts now simply because there is no space left for us to grow. That is unacceptable. thi Shamik: Will they be willing to share? They certainly haven’t till now! Panditji: Over the years, different proposals have been made by different agencies on how the world can share the carbon budget. Some suggested it should be shared on the basis of human population over a given period of time, while others proposed that it should be presented in terms of temperature differences the actions of individual nations will make.
Godhuli: Ooofff! My head is beginning to reel again!
Panditji: Ok, then try getting your head around this one. You know that global warming happens when emissions exceed the capacity of natural sinks like forests, grasslands, oceans to absorb GHGs, right? Now, terrestrial sinks are considered to be national properties but oceanic sinks belong to humankind. They are common global property. These sinks can be apportioned on the basis of a country’s share of the world’s population…because each individual living on this Planet has equal right to the global commons. Are you with me till now?
Godhuli and Shamik: Yes. But then what?
Panditji: This allocation of the global sinks to each nation based on population creates a system of percapita (person) emission entitlements (rights), which taken together could form the ‘permissible’ emission level of each country. It would also highlight some startling climate realities. Like this one. The US has less than 5 per cent o the world’s population, but accounts for almost 19 per cent of the global emissions in 2005. India, with almost 17 per cent of the world’s population, accounts for less than 5 per cent emissions.
Godhuli: Wow! Why can’t this alone turn the case in favour of India and rest of the developing nation lock?.
Panditji: (sighs) It should Godhuli, it should. But the politics of Climate Change is too twisted for such a simple solution. We have a long and tedious battle ahead of us. Copenhagen will probably just sound the bugle…