Copenhagen Contributes to Global Warming

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Dean Baker
The Hankyoreh (South Korea), December 20, 2009

The international negotiations on climate change in Copenhagen this month ostensibly ended with an agreement. However, the reality is that the only thing that the parties really agreed to is that something should be done and to keep talking. There was nothing in the way of concrete commitments and timetables that could give anyone confidence that the major world powers are prepared to take the steps needed to limit the damage from global warming.

What is most disturbing is the complete failure to openly discuss the most basic issues that must be addressed in any sort of international agreement. At the most fundamental level, a serious agreement is going to require that the developing world seriously constrain its growth of emissions. There is no plausible set of emission reductions on the part of the United States and other wealthy countries that can accommodate the emissions growth path of the developing world without serious harm to planet (i.e. tens of millions of people get killed by flooding and other disasters associated with global warming).

The other inescapable part of the story is that the United States and the other wealthy countries will have to pay the developing countries to restrain their emissions. The reason is that it is absurd to demand that these countries will forever maintain their per capita emissions at one quarter, or even one-tenth, of the level of the people in the United States simply because we have already done great damage to the planet. There is no logic to such a demand, which is readily apparent to anyone who is not caught up inside of the conventional wisdom of the intellectual elite in the United States.

If the developing countries are going to restrain their emissions it will be because the U.S. and other wealthy countries are paying them to do so, effectively picking up the cost of imposing constraints on these countries that we ourselves did not have to abide by. This reality is not even seriously being discussed at this point.

At Copenhagen, there was a talk of a poorly specified commitment of $100 billion a year, by 2020, to help the developing world restrict its greenhouse gas emissions. This was not $100 billion in governmental aid. This money is presumed to include money from non-profits and will almost consist largely of investments from by companies looking for greater profit. In other words, the decision of a European or U.S. manufacturer to locate the production of solar panels in the developing world may count as part of this $100 billion. While the location of such facilities in a developing country may spur growth and help generate jobs, it does nothing to curtail their own emissions of greenhouse gases.

If the rich countries are serious about getting developing countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it will almost certainly require real spending that is several times larger. And, there is no way that the rich countries can avoid this sort of solution, first and foremost because of the growth of China.

In prior decades the rich countries could approach the developing world with a divide and conquer strategy. Relatively small amounts of money paid to a few key countries (or more accurately, the rulers of a few key countries) were sufficient to undermine any unified stand by the developing world. This meant that the rich countries, or more often just the United States, could get its way in international forums.

The rise of China makes this approach impossible. There is no divide and conquer strategy that can be applied to China. China is not going to agree to restrict its per capita emissions of greenhouse gases to one-third or one-quarter the U.S. level just because President Obama asks them to. If the United States and other rich countries want to keep China from continuing on its current emissions growth path, then they will have to pay much of the cost of getting them on a lower emissions growth path. This is of course fair. More importantly, China is powerful enough that there is no alternative.

It is not hard to develop mechanisms through which this transfer to China and other developing can be done in an orderly and non-disruptive way. The most obvious would be to simply give China and other developing countries emissions caps that are largely consistent with their baseline growth path, while imposing caps on rich countries that require sharp reductions from current emissions levels. The developing world can then sell its permits to the rich countries, giving them a powerful incentive to develop along a path that involves much lower greenhouse gas emissions.

The mechanics of this method for restraining greenhouse gas emissions are relatively straightforward, even if the politics are not. However, this sort of payment system to the developing world is the only way in which we can effectively limit the damage from climate change.

Until politicians are prepared to acknowledge this reality they are not being serious about global warming. In that context, the best thing we can do is simply refrain from having big international meetings (like those in Copenhagen), which cannot produce any meaningful results and simply emit greenhouse gases for no useful end.


Dean Baker is a macroeconomist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. He previously worked as a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute and an assistant professor at Bucknell University.