Climate after Copenhagen

28 December 2009

The reason for the failure in Copenhagen is clear - rather than discuss coordinated efforts, countries lobbied for their particular interests. Everything now depends on individual states and their respective blocs.

Even before participants to the United Nations Global Climate Change Conference began arriving in Copenhagen earlier this month, everyone knew that the talks would end in failure. It is unrealistic to expect results from a summit if the document that is to be signed has not been prepared or given approval at least several weeks or months in advance. The most that can be hoped to be achieved over the course of such a summit is to clear up minor disagreements — not to prepare a policy statement from scratch in just a few days, especially if the parties involved have tried unsuccessfully for years to reach an agreement.

Russians continue to debate whether global warming actually exists. When asked about climate change during his year-end interview Thursday with the general directors of the country’s top three television networks, President Dmitry Medvedev said: “There are many different points of view on this issue. But more important than the question of whether the climate is cooling or heating up is how we react to it.” 

Most tempting of all is to try to console ourselves by imagining that there is no problem, even though industrial gas emissions are a serious cause for concern regardless of their effect on the climate. And the rising level of the world’s oceans and other negative consequences of climate change are obvious challenges that must be resolved through action — either by building dams, adopting new agricultural technologies or relocating millions of people.

The real multibillion-dollar question is who is going to pay for all of this?

After Copenhagen, it is clear that no coordinated international measures will be forthcoming, no matter how eloquently leaders spoke to allay public concerns. The reason for the failure is clear. Rather than discuss coordinated efforts, countries lobbied for their particular interests. Some nations even attempted to profit from the climate crisis at the expense of others.

The United States could not reach agreement with Europe. Eastern Europe found no accord with Western Europe. China held its ground simultaneously against the West and other former Third World states, and both newer and older industrial powers argued over who should pay more to implement changes.

At the same time, the methods for coping with the problem prescribed by the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 were unworkable from the start. In place of ensuring that concrete measures would be adopted to limit harmful emissions, the agreement created a market mechanism for trading quotas that has had the same effect on the ecology as the trading of shares has had on the economy.

Although it is obvious that the Kyoto Protocol is not working, it is unclear what should replace it. The states that are responsible for the failure of the global economic policy have no intention of admitting their mistakes or of rejecting principles that have proven ineffective. The same thing that happened with the economic crisis is now happening with the climate crisis. It is already clear that taking a purely market-based approach will not produce the desired results.

Different approaches are necessary as well as action directed at achieving concrete results rather than generating profits. Governments may need to intervene to convince industries to convert to the use of cleaner processes and technologies. Long-term investment is also needed — without demanding short-term profits — in new technologies, waste treatment plants, pollution control facilities, reforestation, irrigation programs and scientific research. All of that cannot be supported if a strict focus on markets and profits is maintained.

After the failure in Copenhagen, everything now depends on individual states and their respective blocs. Whatever government leaders might say, the only option left for the European Union is to institute ecological protectionist measures — additional tariffs on the import of manufactured goods from countries that do not share the financial responsibility for resolving climate problems. Income from those duties could help finance ecological programs and such a policy would force newly industrialized countries to get serious about the environment. What’s more, this approach would produce results more quickly than many people might imagine. The problem is that, as always, the poor people living in the poorest countries will be forced to foot the bill.

Originally published by The Moscow Times © Copyright.