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Global Action vs the Andrew Bolts of the World

February 10, 2010

In this debate on ABC’s Insiders program last Sunday,  journalist and prominent Australian climate skeptic Andrew Bolt made a number of claims to discredit both climate science and Australian climate policy to price carbon.

Among other logical leaps, Mr Bolt said that the Copenhagen Accord showed the world, including the 5 key emitters, were not ready to act and so passing an ETS would not be in Australia’s interests. 

Well, I don’t mean to be semantic, but how do you interpret China’s and India’s pledges to reduce carbon intensity by 40-45% by 2020 and India’s by 25% by 2020 (relative to 2005 levels) as indicating no action five greatest emitters? And what about Brazil’s pledge to reduce emissions by 39% by 2020?  In fact, of the big 5, only Russia seemed to really commit to very little, since its 25% reduction below 1990 levels by 2020 really would amount to an increase in emissions due to the effects of its economic collapse in the late 90s. And as for the US, well, we all know how complicated the US Congressional situation is.  

Moreover, Accord actually seemed to show that many others, and maybe even the big 5 too, are prepared to do different kinds of actions, depending on national circumstances and the extent to which they see others acting. Take Europe for example, who offered a 20% reduction on 2020 levels with no agreement, but 30% if there was a strong agreement. Or Japan’s conditional -25% cut? Heck, even Australia’s own 5 – 25 % conditional target. Or New Zealand’s 10-20% ?

The reality is Copenhagen was not the ‘be all and end all’ of international negotiations, despite the media hyping it likes a sports grand final. Given the complexity of the issues, it’s not surprising that there was a very limited agreement in Copenhagen.

There are myriad Very. Challenging. Issues. Like: a) agreeing a multibillion dollar financing arrangement for developing and strongly affected countries, b) addressing deforestation (which contributes around 17-20% of world annual emissions depending on who you listen to), c) agreeing to monitoring reporting and verification for domestic policies, d) working out the future global framework for action that everyone can agree on,  and e) working out a mechanism for large scale technology transfers to developing countries to tackle emissions.

Some of these issues, like global financing for developing countries, open up very challenging existing sensitivities between the north and the south that have existed for 50+ years. Others, like monitoring and reporting go to issues of sovereignty and the manifestly distrustful US-China relationship.  

These kinds of negotiations work by each country taking the cards it has in one area, and playing them to influence the outcome of other parts of the negotiations which are of particular concern to it. Thus, in many ways, it is difficult to resolve one of these issues without resolving all of them at once!  Bottom line is, its not that simple.

So because of the difficulty in resolving all these issues in a two week negotiator-fest (where the first week was wasted by being full of posturing) what we’ve got so far is a very ad hoc solution, the Copenhagen Accord, which may or may not be a step to further progress. It really depends on how seriously countries take it, and that means: whether they live up to their part of the bargains that were made in it. And that means, as US negotiators Jonathan Pershing and Todd Stern have pointed out, that countries put in place credible reduction mechanisms that prove to others that they are serious and will reduce their emissions, such as policies to price carbon, like taxes or an ETS. As a US Congressional official commented the other day at a conference I was at: ‘countries are far more influenced in making domestic policy based on what they see other countries actually doing, than what they see other countries talking about doing, or asking them to’.

For all these reasons, Mr Bolt’s comments on global action and what it implies for Australian policy choices were a gross distortion of the reality and are actually counter-productive to moving international negotiations forward. The more each country hesitates, the more the by-stander paradox sets in, and things go nowhere.

(Right now the Annex to the Copenahgen Accord so far looks like this🙂

Percentage cut by 2020 (unconditional)
Percentage cut by 2020 (conditional, e.g. on global deal)
Base year
Australia 5 25 2000
Canada 17   2005
Croatia 5   1990
EU 20 30 1990
Japan   25 1990
Kazakhstan 15   1992
New Zealand   20 1990
Norway 30 40 1990
Russia   25 1990
US 17   2005
Brazil 38.9   “business as usual” – the emissions level if no action were taken
Costa Rica No specific pledge, but will “significantly deviate from business as usual greenhouse gas emissions”    
Ethiopia No specific pledge    
Georgia No specific pledge    
Indonesia 26   “business as usual” – the emissions level if no action were taken
Israel 20   “business as usual” – the emissions level if no action were taken
Jordan No specific pledge    
Macedonia No specific pledge    
Madagascar No specific pledge    
Maldives 1   “business as usual” – the emissions level if no action were taken
Marshall Islands   40 2009
Moldova 25   1990
Morocco No specific pledge    
Republic of Congo 1    
Republic of Korea 30   “business as usual” – the emissions level if no action were taken
Sierra Leone No specific pledge    
Singapore   16 “business as usual” – the emissions level if no action were taken
South Africa   34 “business as usual” – the emissions level if no action were taken
  Carbon intensity cuts (the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of economic growth), by percentage   Base year
China 45   2005
India 25   2005
Where targets were submitted as a range, higher figure has been chosen (eg 10-20% for New Zealand is 20% in table)      

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