Climate change

China-US co-operation would reduce hot air on climate change

Bilateral action by the two largest polluters, China and the United States, is the most effective way to unlock the global impasse on climate change

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 March, 2014, 10:22am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 March, 2014, 5:08am

Lots of fossil fuel has been burned over two decades as government officials and sundry others have sped across the globe to frequent United Nations-sponsored meetings aimed at tackling catastrophic climate change.

The irony of contributing to a warmer earth while talking earnestly about preventing temperatures from rising would be softened if more progress had been made, or if the prospects of a successful agreement looked better.

The latest gathering of this kind brought together nearly 700 officials from 169 governments, along with a couple of hundred observers, who huddled in Bonn last week for four days.

The West grew rich with no constraining thoughts about climatic degradation

Despite all the miles travelled in the 22 years since the first of these internationally co-ordinated efforts to do something about global warming was initiated at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the distance between nations on effective co-operation is enormous.

The Bonn meeting aimed to make progress on establishing a new agreement next year to effectively extend the commitments of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

The protocol, which entered into force in 2005, legally bound 37 developed countries to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but the rest of the world had no such obligation.

And that's the fundamental reason why international discussions on joint action to date have been so fraught and unproductive - they have all been about competing views on where the burden of responsibility for dealing with the problem should fall.

The Bonn meeting sought to build on a recent shift engineered last year in Durban. This calls for commitments from all parties under the 2015 agreement, scotching the notion that rich countries should have binding GHG emission reduction obligations while the rest have none.

But with phrases like "common but differentiated responsibilities" and "intended nationally determined contributions" littering the language of the meeting, the scope for procedural squabbles to stall negotiations is clear.

It would be difficult enough if the only question was by how much parties should reduce their GHG emissions.

But the discussions also include actions for adaptation to higher temperatures, sources of finance to promote mitigation, access to technology, capacity building and mechanisms for measuring, reporting and verifying compliance with commitments.

It is not hard to see the myriad possibilities for carving out disagreement.

Further complications are the absence of unchallenged scientific certainty about global warming and its consequences, and the fact that the need for action is immediate - but not the consequences of inaction.

Mainstream opinion is that if we do not stabilise the level of GHG emissions in the very near future, we will not keep the rise in the earth's temperature down to less than 2-2.5 degrees Celsius.

Failure to achieve that, the specialists say, would move us towards conditions catastrophic enough to destroy social and political structures across the globe and a breakdown of order.

What has been achieved so far by way of mitigation has been deemed insufficient by experts to avoid severe deterioration in the condition of the planet and those who live on it.

Agreeing on action to prevent this outcome should on the face of it be a no-brainer, but divisions on the balance of responsibility for action run deep.

The West grew rich with no constraining thoughts about climatic degradation. Emerging economies know that they cannot afford to act likewise.

Yet the bulk of accumulated GHGs in the atmosphere was put there by the rich countries, and carbon dioxide, the dominant GHG, takes 100-200 years to dissipate.

According to the World Resources Institute, China accounted for 23 per cent of total GHG emissions in 2010, while the second-largest source, the US, was responsible for 15 per cent.

These proportions have changed a good deal in less than a decade, because of China's rapid increase in demand for coal-based energy.

Aside from considerations of historical responsibility, it should be noted that China's per capita emissions were about a third of those of the United States.

China's income level has yet to catch up with that of the United States. Moreover, a significant share of China's emissions is generated in producing goods for consumption in the West.

All said, however, these figures clearly point to shared responsibility. Neither country contests this, and both are acting unilaterally in different ways to reduce emissions. That should provide a basis for constructive engagement that cracks the nut of burden sharing.

Agreement on a course of action between the two largest polluters would be more than sufficient to unlock the global impasse.

The chances of progress would almost certainly be greater away from the backstage-process-driven cacophony and grandstanding of UN meetings.

Unlike in trade, exclusive co-operation cannot be discriminatory or hurtful to third parties, because climate change affects everyone.

Bilateral action may be the only way forward towards a concerted global solution.

Patrick Low is vice-president of research at the Fung Global Institute