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Irwin Stelzer: Lima Pumps Out More Hot Air

Irwin Stelzer, The Sunday Times

The trip to Paris and an international climate agreement might be a hiding to nothing.

The road to the recent UN climate change conference in Lima can be said to have begun in London, on October 30, 2006, when the Treasury released a 700-page report by the economist Nicholas Stern, now Baron Stern of Brentford. The Stern Review concluded: “Climate change is a serious global threat, and it demands an urgent response . . . Hundreds of millions of people could suffer hunger, water shortages and coastal flooding.”

Eight years on, Stern professes himself satisfied that the Lima meeting of representatives of some 200 countries is an important step towards a new agreement, to be signed at a summit in Paris next December. The goal of that upcoming summit was set in Copenhagen in 2009: to prevent global temperatures rising more than 2C above pre-industrial levels, thereby averting the dire consequences predicted by Stern and many climate-change models.

That’s a tall order, for three reasons. First, Latin American and other poor countries (and some not-so-poor countries) are desperate for growth, and rightly or wrongly see green policies as impediments to growth. Second, many participating countries do not even have the ability to measure their emissions, which should be a prerequisite for proving that commitments have been met. Finally, President Barack Obama is insisting that the goals nations set for themselves be non-binding.

Obama has no choice but to rely on some form of voluntary compliance. In 1997 the US Senate voted 95-0 to scupper the Kyoto protocol. The plan is to replace that protocol, agreed to by some 37 countries and the EU and due to expire in 2020, with the Paris accord. The next step on the road to Paris and a new agreement will take place in March when each country is to lay out its INDC — that’s its “intended nationally determined contribution” to reducing emissions from 2020. Those INDCs will cover 50 shades of green, from Obama’s dark green to Canada’s, Australia’s and Russia’s various shades of pale green.

The developing countries are interested in a different kind of green — greenbacks. They were exempted from the Kyoto protocol, and grudgingly surrendered that exemption in Lima in return for promises of cold cash and treatment that differentiates them from developed countries — for example, no outside monitoring.  […]

Obama pledged $3bn of American taxpayers’ money to the Green Climate Fund, another UN agency, matching the total pledged by Germany, France and South Korea. Britain, its large fiscal deficit notwithstanding, will scrape together about $1.1bn over three years. Japan will toss another $1.5bn into the pot, and other countries have contributed enough to meet the fund’s initial capitalisation goal of $10bn. That still leaves it far short of the $100bn annually the developed countries pledged to mobilise way back in 2009. The developing countries want firm assurances that some day soon their cheques will be in the post. […]

Meanwhile, although the EU cannot plead poverty, at least not yet, some member countries are now less certain about its plans to reduce emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. France, its economy moribund, and Germany, its economy stalled, are asking Brussels to ease proposed restrictions on vehicle emissions — cars and vans account for 15% of greenhouse gas emissions in Europe. Also, Germany’s love affair with renewables is cooling in the face of rising energy costs that are making dirty indigenous coal look a more attractive partner in its drive to remain competitive in world markets. Even the most sincere believers in the existential threat of global warming will re-examine their fealty to the cause if their economies are not growing at a rapid rate.

So the trip to Paris and an international agreement might be a hiding to nothing, for several reasons.

■ Even if the participants emerge with a piece of paper assuring us of cooling in our time, the agreement won’t take effect until 2020, by which time it might be too late to achieve the goal called for in Copenhagen.
■ Experts doubt that “the INDCs, when totted up, [will] be ambitious enough”, concludes The Economist. More cuts and money will be needed. But Obama will have only one year left of his term, and can’t bind his successor, while a Republican-controlled Congress will be unenthusiastic about Stern’s suggestion that richer nations “accept the responsibilities that are associated with [our] greater wealth” — that is, send more taxpayer money to developing countries.
■ There is no enforcement mechanism, tempting more than a few signatories to free-ride on other more fastidious ones.

Instead of continuing on the road to Paris and an ineffectual effort to prevent further warming, the thousands of delegates might pause for a rethink. But any policy change would take leadership by Obama, and the prospect of that is between slim and nil. So it’s on to Paris.

The Sunday Times, 21 December 2014