Friday, May 29, 2009

Hard road to Copenhagen

Adam Morton
The Age, May 30, 2009

Other related coverage

The world is starting to get its act together on emissions cuts, but time is running out.

HAVING served as ambassador there in the late 1980s — when he was boss to a young diplomat named Kevin Rudd — Ross Garnaut knows China. And while his links with the Australian Parliament may have diminished of late (savaging a government for ignoring your advice can do that to you), the former Rudd climate adviser has close academic and business ties with the waking Asian giant and returns regularly.

When he does, he sees a country taking much greater strides in limiting greenhouse emissions than many in the West realise.

Speaking recently in Melbourne, the professor listed a string of environmentally friendly steps being taken in Beijing: taxes on energy-guzzling industries such as cement, aluminium and steel and world's-best investment in low-emissions energy — nuclear, solar, wind and biomass.

To this he could have added adoption of targets to dramatically cut the amount of energy used per $1 of GDP generated and ensure that a 10th of energy comes from renewable sources by next year.

Garnaut believes China is discouraging energy-hungry industries to "an extent that it would be very difficult, politically, in Australia".

"I think most Australians would be surprised at the emphasis in China on making sure that future growth is not like past growth," he says.

One of the major questions that must be answered this year is: can China, now producing more greenhouse gas than any other country, be persuaded to convert this willingness to act into taking on a formal target?

It is one of the challenges that must be addressed over the next six months to pull off a significant deal at the key summit at Copenhagen in December aimed at avoiding catastrophic climate change.

Whether there is any hope of finding common ground should become clearer over the next six weeks. Next week the latest round of United Nations-sponsored talks starts in Bonn, Germany, where for the first time the bureaucratic bluster will be focused on specifics — the newly released negotiating text that must form the basis of a new climate treaty. The talks will be followed in July by a meeting in Italy of the leaders of 17 of the biggest emitting nations, at the Major Economies Forum called by US President Barack Obama. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will be there.

Western nations have conceded that, as they are responsible for about three-quarters of the historic emissions that put the world in this position, they must act first to get developing nations on board. Much of the focus of the UN talks will be on working out how much action the rich must agree to take before China and other emerging nations agree to restrain their emissions.

While its investment in clean energy is immense, China is also spending up big on coal-fired electricity as it pulls itself out of poverty. Garnaut projects that if the world keeps to its current path, 90 per cent of emissions growth over the next two decades will come from developing nations.

The UN negotiating text, essentially a list of ambit claims, suggests the haves and the have-nots are no closer to agreement.

The nominated target for rich nations to do their bit has long been a 25-40 per cent cut below 1990 emissions levels by 2020. Alarmed by worsening climate science predictions, many developing countries are now increasing their demands. China and South Africa say they want the rich to cut emissions by 40 per cent.

Which poses a problem. According to Australian National University professor Stephen Howes, a former World Bank lead economist, likely commitments from rich nations add up to an overall commitment to cut somewhere between 10 and 20 per cent.

And there is no agreement on how to drum up the tens of billions of dollars needed to help the poor fight climate change and cope with the changes already locked in.

Erwin Jackson, policy director with Australian think tank the Climate Institute, says there is little time left to resolve these issues.

"If by September we haven't seen real progress on financing and real progress by developed countries putting on the table real, ambitious targets, then Copenhagen will be in real trouble," he says.

Despite this, close observers of the talks says there is some reason for optimism — certainly more than six months ago.

China and the US — the G2, responsible for about 40 per cent of global emissions — are both showing signs of progress.

While two senior Chinese climate officials recently told The Age they were disappointed with proposals put forward by the US and Australia, insiders say the public positioning does not fully reflect the shifting negotiations.

John Kerry, chairman of the powerful US Senate foreign relations committee, called the talks between China and the US in Beijing this week the most constructive on climate change in 20 years.

Howes says reports from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and in state-owned media suggest China is preparing to take on an ambitious target — perhaps to reduce emissions per $1 of GDP by 20 per cent.

Similarly, the US is ahead of where many expected it to be. Four months after Obama was sworn in, the country has a proposed emissions trading scheme ready to go before Congress in August.

Unlike the Australian emissions trading proposal, the Waxman-Markey bill — named after the powerful Democrats behind it — includes provisions to finance the fight against climate change in the developing world. Including credits for stopping deforestation in the tropics, it could cut emissions by about 15 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020. US climate envoy Todd Stern acknowledged this did not meet the demands of other nations, but said the superpower was "jumping as high as the political system will tolerate".

So how to bridge the gap? Insiders suggest it will involve not only compromise, but a shifting of the goal posts. Where the Kyoto Protocol compared emissions to 1990 levels, a new treaty is likely to have to bring this forward to 2000 or 2005 to better reflect where countries are today. The US proposal, for instance, looks relatively insignificant when placed on a 1990 baseline. Compared to 2005, its target becomes a 30 per cent cut.

Elsewhere, some of the biggest strides are coming from countries on the cusp of development. Mexico, for instance, has pledged to halve emissions by 2050 and is considering an emissions trading scheme. On the other side of the coin is India, which is less inclined to forgive the lack of action to date from the West and is likely to have to be treated differently to China under a new deal, due to the depth of its poverty.

And Australia? The recent announcement that it may accept a 25 per cent reduction target, albeit it only under a strong global deal, has been warmly received internationally. But experts warn that the lack of finalised emissions trading legislation, likely given the opposition in the Senate, would make the target seem hollow to some developing nations. Even if it is passed, analysts here and overseas note it will count for little unless the Federal Government comes up with concrete proposals on financing.

While observers are increasingly optimistic about a treaty arising from Copenhagen, the bigger question is whether it will do what it needs to — give the world a chance of limiting warming to less than 2 degrees. Analyses of the proposals currently on the table suggest the answer is no.

As the Climate Institute's Erwin Jackson says, countries are moving. "The question is whether they are moving fast enough."

Adam Morton is environment reporter.

Tony Wright is on leave.

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