United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon addressed the meeting of the Major Economies Forum Leaders, held on the margins of the Group of Eight Summit in Italy on July 9, 2009. He told them that the commitments expressed to date on climate change were “not sufficient” and that “much more will need to be done if Governments are to seal the deal on a new climate agreement in Copenhagen this December”. (Emphasis added.)
“The time for delays and half-measures is over,” he exclaimed.
“Seal the deal” has become Ban Ki-moon’s battle cry in his bid to make an ambitious global climate treaty his lasting legacy. But slogans and dire warnings of the end of human civilization won’t accomplish much of any use. Unless China, India, and Brazil in particular, which contribute significantly to global carbon emissions, are brought into the fold, any “deal” will have plenty of holes in it. In fact, China alone is now the world’s leading emitter of greenhouse gases and its economy will surpass the United States’ by mid-century if not sooner.
Yet the Secretary General has placed the entire burden of mandatory commitments on the United States and the other leading industrialized countries in the Group of 8. He said that the industrialized countries “must lead by example in making firm commitments to reduce their emissions by 2020 on the order of the 25 - 40 per cent below 1990 levels”.
This lets China, India and Brazil off the hook because these emerging economic powerhouses are still treated by the United Nations as if they were “developing” countries. All they have to do is try to mitigate emissions that they deem to be “nationally appropriate” in some sort of measurable fashion, according to Ban Ki-moon. For this gesture, he expects the industrialized countries to give them more “funding and technology assistance”.
When I asked the Secretary General’s spokesperson at a press briefing on July 9th whether the Secretary General has any specific position or recommendation concerning the refusal of China etc. to commit to any mandatory targets, either intermediate or even long-term, I received a vague answer. Obviously, he doesn’t have any specific recommendations, except to rely on their good intentions to reach aspirational, non-binding targets. After all, according to his press release on the subject, “developing countries should not have to choose between reducing poverty and reducing emissions”.
But somehow China gets to choose between reducing poverty and building up its military power and its industrial base for exports. Does that make sense? I don’t think so.
The rationale that is often given for this wimp out approach is that it is unfair to penalize the economies that are just now experiencing rapid growth for the accumulated build-up of greenhouse gases over the last century by the United States and other long-time industrialized countries. This argument amounts to a justification for the equivalent of an affirmative action program, applying to China, India and other fast-growing economies outside of the West, Japan, Russia and a handful of other industrialized countries. We are supposed to provide what amounts to a massive hidden subsidy of their economies to our economic detriment.
Aside from the fact that the terms “developing” or “undeveloped” are not really as applicable to the fast-growing economies of China, India and Brazil as they are to the poor countries of Africa, there are three problems with this ‘fairness’ justification. First, the U.S. and other industrialized countries have already spent billions of dollars on cleaning up their environments and converting to greener economies. And they are willing to commit to spending billions more to meet mandatory targets by a date certain. In other words, China, India and Brazil have already been given a big head-start before they would be expected to enter into any commitments of their own.
Secondly, any commitments being sought from these countries would be stretched out over a longer period of time, and would be less stringent, than those imposed on the industrialized countries. Thus, the burden-sharing will still not be equal.
Thirdly, China, India and Brazil are able to leap-frog to newer, cleaner, more efficient technologies because of the investments in research and development that were made by the original industrialized countries. In economic terms, they are able to free-ride on what has been spent already by G-8 countries, which means their economies will not incur those direct R&D costs themselves. And the plan is to provide more technology and funding to help smooth their transition to more carbon-neutral economies.
If Ban Ki-moon wants to “seal the deal” in Copenhagen by the end of this year, he has to lean on China, India and Brazil to grow up. Otherwise, the United States should not join in this charade and put our economy at risk of more job losses from ill-conceived global climate change treaties or from domestic policies that would have the same effect.