Science & Technology

"Climate Change Tourists" Go Home!

The Nairobi global warming conference grinds to an end


NAIROBI—"Climate change tourists" is how Kenyan Maasai leader of environmental group Practical Action Sharon Looremeta dismissed the diplomats negotiating over what to do about global warming here in Nairobi. "You come here to look at some climate impacts and some poor people suffering, and then climb on your airplanes and head home," she bitterly added. She was expressing the widespread frustration of many African representatives who were hoping that the conference would result in "new mechanisms to help sustainable development in Africa" and "more funds for adaptation." In other words, they expected cash.

Nothing much—good or bad—was accomplished at the 12th Conference of the Parties (COP-12) of the UN's Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) chiefly because most other countries are waiting for the United States. Unless the US jumps on the global warming bandwagon, the Kyoto Protocol signatories will do nothing much more on the issue. In particular, the chief thing other nations are waiting for is the end of President Bush's Administration in January, 2009.

No substantive negotiations are taking place here in Nairobi for another reason too. At the insistence of the US at the last climate change meeting in Montreal in 2005, the delegates agreed to launch a "dialogue" on climate change that explicitly would not involve any negotiations. So for the last two days, environment ministers from around the globe have been listening to and discussing presentations from various experts on development and on applying markets to climate change. "The purpose of the dialogue is to take people out of the tensions and concerns of negotiations and allow them to rethink possibilities," said Howard Bamsey, the dialogue's co-facilitator at a UNFCCC secretariat press conference today.

And perhaps some rethinking has been going on. Halldor Thorgeirsson, deputy executive secretary of the UNFCCC, mentioned that a South African delegate had made interesting observation. The South African turned the usual formulation of "what can we do to pursue development under the constraints imposed by climate change" on its head to "what can we do to address climate change under the constraints of the need for development and poverty eradication?"

Poverty eradication is a massive problem. Just how massive was made clear by the vice president for sustainable development at the World Bank, Katherine Sierra, when she pointed out in speech to the delegates that developing countries need annual investment for electricity supply of $165 billion through 2010 and afterwards investment needs would increase at 3 percent per year. The real heartbreaker came when she noted that the current energy supply investments planned for Africa "will increase poor people's access to energy in Sub-Saharan Africa from 23 percent today to 47 percent by 2030." In other words, half the people in Sub-Saharan Africa still won't have access to modern energy supplies in 25 years! Half! Frankly, it's hard to imagine that climate change projected for the next five decades can wreak as much havoc on the lives of poor Africans as the lack of modern energy supplies does today. International bureaucrats also myopically worry that as climate worsens, that a lot of overseas development aid will have to be channeled away from development into disaster relief. How about growing economies so that poor people like Sharon Looremeta in impoverished countries don't need development aid because they have created their own  resources which would enable them to bounce back from whatever disasters assault them?  Now that would be some interesting rethinking.

Some surprising rethinking may also be taking place among America's climate negotiators. The leader of the US delegation at the conference, Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky, reportedly said that the Bush Administration is closely watching the how California and nine Northeastern states reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG). "We welcome the pursuit of these different strategies and we want to see how they evolve," she said to the Associated Press. She even didn't rule out the possibility that the Bush Administration could end its resistance to mandatory limits on greenhouse gases (GHG).

Meanwhile, three senators—Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Joseph Lieberman (CFL-Conn.) issued a letter saying "the US must move quickly to adopt economy-wide constraints on GHG emissions and then work with the international community to forge an effective and equitable global agreement." These senators believe that the global warming will be an election issue in 2008. And it may be, especially if some weather disaster on the scale of Hurricane Katrina sails in during the campaign. A post-election Zogby poll found that a majority of Americans agreed that elected officials "should make combating global warming a high priority."

However, a lot depends on what the senators mean by an "equitable global agreement." While the Green wing of the Democratic Party may be all in favor imposing limits on carbon dioxide, the Party's union supporters, who work industry, transport and power generation, will be reluctant to go along. The Democrats, just like President Bush, will have to argue that emissions limits must be imposed on developing countries, especially China, India, and Brazil, because otherwise those countries would be able to out-compete American industry and workers. If those countries refuse to go along, the Democrats may end up joining with the Europeans who are calling for punitive tariffs on goods imported from countries that don't restrict their carbon dioxide emissions.

For me, this raises the fear that imposing carbon dioxide emissions limits without somehow including all the big emitters could unravel all the painful progress the world has made toward freer trade among nations. Dismantling the World Trade Organization would destroy vast amounts of wealth and end up impoverishing the world's poorest people even more than any projected climate change. For example, a 2002 Institute for International Economics study found that just reducing current trade barriers could add $600 billion to global GDP and raise incomes in the world's poorest countries by an average of 20 percent. Much more would be at stake if the countries started erecting new trade barriers. The IIE's figure compares very nicely with the $450 billion dollars (1 percent of global GDP) that Britain's recently released Stern Review calculated would be needed to be spent annually to cut the emissions of greenhouse gases to an acceptable level.

While the Nairobi climate conference was mostly about dialogue, negotiations did result in some small measures being taken around the edges of the Kyoto Protocol. For example, the plenary session voted to launch an Adaptation Fund which is designed to channel money skimmed from Clean Development Mechanism projects to poor countries to help them adapt to climate change. There was some controversy over which UN agency should run it, but as UNFCCC executive secretary Yvo de Boer noted, it's not important to resolve right now because the fund only has $3 million in it.

Finally, as expected the COP-12 did not set any new tough caps on greenhouse gas emissions for the industrialized country signatories of the Kyoto Protocol when it runs out in 2012. The COP-12 did set a deadline of 2008 for finishing a review of the Protocol's effectiveness which could pave the way to negotiations over future reduction commitments. However, developing nations will not be pushed to agree to emissions reductions as part of the review process. Basically, while the Kyoto Protocol signatories wait out the Bush Administration, the delegates agreed to agree two years from now. And of course, the important thing is to decide where next year's meeting will be held. Apparently, COP-13 will be hosted by Indonesia in Bali.

Disclosure: I gratefully acknowledge that the International Policy Network in Britain is paying my expenses to cover the conference in Nairobi. Here's what the folks at Exxonsecrets say about IPN and here's what they say about me.


Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.