A legally binding agreement seems beyond reach at Copenhagen. Ma Jun blames an inability to balance the need for efficiency with the principle of equity.
Climate change is one of the most complex challenges that faces the world today. The fact that international society has come together to negotiate a plan to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions after 2012 reflects the progress of human civilisation. However, the gap in the positions of the developing countries and developed nations remains so wide at this point in the Copenhagen negotiations that a legally binding agreement seems beyond reach. It will be very difficult to bridge such a major gap merely through technical adjustments. Instead, the major stakeholders should return to the fundamental concepts of equity and efficiency if they want to escape this predicament.
There are different views about how to approach the environmental principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities.” Research shows that the emissions of developed countries in their industrialisation over the past 150 years are the primary cause of current climate-change impacts. Therefore, developing countries argue that industrialised nations should be legally obliged to reduce their emissions. At the same time, the rights of developing countries to improve their livelihoods through economic development should be respected – and there should not be mandatory emissions curbs for these poor countries. However, developed countries doubt that such a plan could successfully address climate change. They argue that their emissions reductions would be quickly offset by the rising emissions of major developing countries, such as China and India, whose scale of carbon dioxide emissions has substantially increased in recent years.
This is the problem: if one considers environmental justice, developed countries should take responsibility for their historical emissions and developing nations should not have to take action from the same starting point. However, if one considers effectiveness and efficiency, the world cannot prevent the dangerous consequences of climate change without developing countries making immediate efforts to slow their rising emissions. There is a conflict between equity and efficiency in the fight against global warming.
With such a global issue that is critical to humanity’s future, we should not sacrifice efficiency for the sake of equity – we cannot afford the risk of climate disaster. But neither can we sacrifice justice for the sake of efficiency – a deal not based on the principle of equity could not be implemented or enforced. A major pathway to balance efficiency with equity – and resolve conflicting interests – is to require that developed countries transfer technology and funds to help developing countries to take immediate action.
But such promises have not materialised, despite having been on the agenda since 1992. This is why many developing countries insist that a deal cannot be reached without this problem being resolved. It is still the most contentious issue at the climate talks. The amount of money that developed countries are willing to provide is very limited – it is worlds away from the expectations of developing nations. The United States have said they will not provide China with finance to reduce emissions; a Chinese negotiator responded that this statement “lacks common sense.”
This sharp contrast in positions shows that the United States and some other western nations still want to shirk their responsibilities; they are not ready to reach a deal based on global environmental justice. Some do not even have the guts to recognise who is responsible for today’s climate problems. That is why some industrialised countries have made legally binding emissions reductions for developing nations a precondition of their commitment. That is why some industrialised countries think financial support for developing nations is a kind of charity – when, in fact, it is compensation for the mess they have created over the past 150 years.
If we want to coordinate the positions of both sides of the argument, developed countries must recognise their responsibility for historical emissions. Based on the principle of balancing efficiency and equity, we should plan to provide financial support for developing countries in the following ways. Based on the precondition that the limit on the rise of the average global temperature – of 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius – should be stringently enforced, every developed country should shoulder its historic duty and set legally binding targets for deep emissions cuts, especially those countries that did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Meanwhile, the least developed nations should be helped in their mitigation and adaptation efforts. Large developing nations like China and India should adopt voluntary action plans to reduce emissions. If an industrialised country is having difficulties reaching its emissions targets and needs help from developing countries to meet them, then developed countries should provide full funding to support developing countries make extra cuts beyond their voluntary emission targets. Once such a multi-billion dollar climate fund has been established, an appropriate supervisory system should be put in place to ensure the funds are used effectively, and are not misused or embezzled.
There is no doubt that the largest obstacle at Copenhagen is the failure of developed nations to recognise their historical responsibilities. However, developing countries should not wait around: they should actively improve their own governance structures in order to build open, transparent and participatory supervisory systems. This is not only important for socio-economic development in poor countries, but it will also boost the confidence of other stakeholders in the effective use of future climate funding. After all, the fundamental issue is that debts are paid, but that we prevent dangerous climate change. If funds for emissions reductions were misused, then humanity would miss its last opportunity to stop climate change.
Ma Jun is director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. Sabrina Orlins and Wang Jingjing assisted the translation.
Homepage image from SevenMetres.net