Who's Responsible for Damaging the Climate? And Who Should Pay for It?

Reason's science correspondent sends a third dispatch from the U.N. Climate Change Conference


WARSAW—On Wednesday, the U.N. climate change conference was all about commitments. The best way the governments of rich countries can show that they are committed to combating global climate change is to hand over wads of cash to poor countries. Besides spending hundreds of billions of dollars, rich countries are expected to keep their promises to make deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by rapidly phasing out the use of fossil fuels. 

Developing countries insist that rich countries are obligated to do so because the billions of tons of carbon dioxide they put into the atmosphere during industrialization caused the current climate crisis. And it is undeniable that the prosperity of developed nations over the past two centuries was fueled by burning coal, oil, and natural gas. 

At a press briefing on Wednesday, Christian Aid's Senior Climate Change Adviser Mohamed Adow insisted that the negotiations at the 19th Conference of the Parties (COP-19) of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) result in developed countries agreeing to cut emissions enough to keep mean average temperature under 2 degrees centigrade above the pre-industrial average. 

How deep must these cuts be? Very deep, according to the calculations made by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in its 2013 Emissions Gap Report. The report estimates that, in order to stay on a reasonable emissions pathway that would result in an increase of only 2 degrees centigrade by 2100, world carbon dioxide emissions would have to be reduced to 44 gigatons by 2020. If emissions reduction pledges made during the 2009 Copenhagen conference are met, emissions will rise from 50 gigatons today to 52 to 56 gigatons in 2020, leaving a gap of 8 to 12 gigatons. 

In other words, according to UNEP, emissions will be 12 to 24 percent higher than they need to be to meet the goal of keeping the average temperature from rising more than 2 degrees centigrade. To put that in context, the Obama administration has pledged that U.S. emissions will be 17 percent lower than they were in 2005, but the UNEP report suggests that they need to be 29 to 41 percent lower by 2020.

So what happens to future temperatures if the emissions gap is not closed? Niklas Höhne, Director of Energy and Climate Policy at the renewable energy consultancy Ecofys, and Bill Hare, the CEO of the Climate Analytics think tank in Germany, have figured that out in their Climate Action Tracker report. The report adds up all of the commitments by countries to reduce their carbon emissions and then calculates if it is enough to keep future warming below 2 degrees centigrade. 

Earlier they had calculated that, if all countries met their emissions commitments made at the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009, the world would likely warm about 3.1 degrees centigrade by 2100. But, at a briefing on Wednesday, the two noted that several rich countries recently had "backtracked" on emissions reduction commitments. 

For example, Japan promised in 2009 to cut its emissions 25 percent by 2020. At the Warsaw conference, Japan now says that its emissions in 2020 will in fact be 3 percent higher than they were in 1990. The increase is the result of switching to fossil fuels to generate electricity after the country took its 50 nuclear reactors offline following the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster.

As a signatory of the Kyoto Protocol, Canada had committed to cutting its emissions by 6 percent below their 1990 level. In 2011, when Canada dropped out of the Kyoto Protocol, its emissions were 30 percent higher than in 1990.

The new government in Australia has been especially disparaged at the conference because it is set on repealing the country's unpopular carbon tax. Nevertheless, the Australian government insists that it has a plan that will enable the country to meet its commitment to a 5 percent emissions reduction by 2020. The Climate Action Tracker calculates that Australia will be emitting 12 percent more by 2020. The calculations suggest that the emissions pathway implied by the new reductions increases their estimate of future warming to 3.7 degrees centigrade by 2100.

On Monday, Todd Stern, the U.S. chief climate negotiator, rejected the notion that future greenhouse gas emissions should be allocated based on historical responsibility. Stern pointed to the 2007 modeling and assessment of contributions to climate change (MATCH) study which found that the contributions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere from the developing countries were nearly equal to those of the developed countries and would, by 2020, exceed the cumulative emissions of developed countries. The new UNEP gap report also notes, "Today developing and developed countries are responsible for roughly equal shares of cumulative greenhouse gas emissions for the period 1850-2010."

When it was noted at a press conference that China is now the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, China's chief climate negotiator Xie Zhenhua responded that it is an "understandable fact" that the emissions of a once-poor country like China must grow as it continues industrializing and urbanizing. Xie was appealing to the environmental Kuznets curve hypothesis which suggests that, as a country's economy develops, pollution first worsens and later improves as its per capita income rises. 

He pointed out that U.S. per capita carbon emissions rose to 20 tons until annual per capita incomes exceeded $30,000 and has now fallen to 17.5 tons per capita. Since China's per capita income is just $6,000, Xie asserted, "Our carbon dioxide emissions will also increase. This is an objective fact." 

On the other hand, Xie stressed that, unlike when the U.S. was developing, China has committed to policies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. But, it is worth noting that China is horrendously inefficient, emitting five times more carbon dioxide per unit of GDP than the United States. When pressed by reporters about why China isn't doing more to address global warming, Xie simply stated, "According to the convention (UNFCCC) we are not obligated to do anything." 

Xie's position sums up the fundamental conflict between the rich and poor countries at the Warsaw conference. The developed countries will not commit to cutting emissions more and handing over bundles of cash, unless the developing countries commit to doing something about their emissions too. The poor countries think that the rich countries owe them for inflicting the "climate crisis" on them and argue that they must necessarily increase their climate-damaging emissions in order to grow their way out of poverty.

Next: Crunch time approaches. Will the rich countries agree to compensate poor countries for loss and damage from climate change? Will the poor countries agree to do more about climate change than accept money from rich countries? Stay tuned.