The struggle to reach an agreement between countries in Durban can be solved otherwise. Since the agreements made in Kyoto to cut emissions of CO2 carbon pollution has risen by nearly half and governments are further than ever from agreeing how to stop global warming. The suggested solution: reform world trade to protect good practice. Countries tackle emission cuts on there own and polluting countries deal with “carbon border adjustments”. It must be easier than putting trust in 194 nations to agree on one set of targets.
Juliette Jowit is a senior journalist at the Guardian, specialising in environmental issues. She wrote this article for The Guardian last week when the climate change conference 2011 took place in Durban.
The old protocol required 194 nations to agree one set of targets. After the Durban climate conference, the best way forward is for countries to go it alone.
Little was expected of the global climate talks, which finish in Durban this weekend, and little of any great significance will be agreed. The US, Canada, China and Russia, even the EU, have been dubbed “climate vampires” for sucking life out of the event. In truth, all hope for a deal to cut pollution levels was dead before the several thousand negotiators, campaigners, scientists, policymakers, consultants and journalists flew to South Africa two weeks ago.
For years, it has been heresy in the climate movement to suggest that the Kyoto protocol, upon which the last two decades of talks have been based, should be abandoned. Even the usually measured UK climate secretary Chris Huhne spluttered at the idea earlier this year, with an uncharacteristically colourful comparison to the usefulness of a “chocolate teapot”. Now, however, it is definitely time to move beyond Kyoto: a process designed to fail.
Since governments met in 1997 and agreed that humans should cut emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, scientists have become ever more certain – and alarmed – about the potential disruption to life on Earth as the ice melts, deserts expand, seas rise and oceans acidify. Yet, despite hours of talks, millions of air miles, dinners and expense accounts, carbon pollution has risen by nearly half, and governments are further than ever from agreeing how to stop runaway warming.
A better solution would be to forget a global deal and let countries go it alone, or in small groups. But to make that happen, world trade needs to be reformed to protect those nations or industries which do take action to cut their emissions against the free-riders who want to keep getting rich on fossil fuels.
Talk of “life beyond Kyoto” has started to rumble, mostly privately. Among the high-profile players, Sir David King – who as the UK government chief scientist famously declared climate change was a “bigger threat than terrorism” – is almost alone in having publicly set out an alternative, including in this newspaper. King’s proposal is based on the only really equitable division of emissions: to work towards a world in 2050 where every human has an “allocation” to emit two tonnes of CO2 each year – a huge cut for rich nations, an increase for poor countries who could choose to build more coal plants or sell their permits to fund “clean” development.
King’s plan, though, appears to depend on the ambition of individual governments: that they will create prosperity from getting ahead in the technological race to make goods and services in a nearly carbon-free world, without suffering too much from what, in the short run, will be cheaper competition.
The Kyoto process toyed with this model in the 2009 Copenhagen accord. So far, governments accounting for 85% of global emissions have made pledges, but even if they delivered on these “informal commitments”, scientists believe there is still a likelihood that the world would warm by an average of 3C or more. Instead, what is needed is what a few economists have begun to write about as “carbon border adjustments”: extra taxes on higher-carbon goods and services.
It’s easy to think of practical problems: how to compare different targets, or whether to insist on a common goal like two tonnes per person; how to judge who misses a target despite trying, and who never really tried at all. And there is the core problem of getting the institutions, particularly the World Trade Organisation, to make the changes.
This is not to be underestimated, especially in the US. The British climate economist Lord Stern suggested last year that countries like the US might have to pay trade taxes if they did not join an international emissions deal. But if almost every government on the planet, the World Economic Forum and most major corporations publicly signed up to cut emissions, it should not be impossible. The task certainly can’t be worse than getting 194 nations to agree on one set of different targets.
And what of Kyoto? It doesn’t need to be “ditched” or “abandoned”. As James Cameron, vice chairman of investment management group Climate Change Capita, suggests, the annual pre-Christmas Conference of the Parties (to Kyoto) meetings could continue, but become glorified trade fairs, where breakthrough technology and engineering, or success in cutting emissions, can be shown off and shared or bartered over. Longer term, the institution could be preserved for when there is genuine appetite for global agreement.
The benefit of moving beyond Kyoto is that no country would be forced to stop burning oil and coal, or build wind and solar farms: they would be free to take a bet on different technologies, the benefits of using up the remaining fossil fuel reserves, and simply copying the new ideas if and when they work.
It is an act of trust – trust that enough governments and industries, banks and engineers, will decide to take a lead. But as countries like impoverished Rwanda commit to low carbon development, as China is building wind farms which could supply countries the size of Poland, as even climate-scared US president Barack Obama insists on doubling the fuel efficiency of new cars in a few years, this future seems a safer bet than putting faith in the current system.
Source: December 2011, The Guardian