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May 29th 2011 print

John Muscat

The Global Climate Standoff

The present state of world climate action is easy to sum up. While everyone pays lip-service to the IPCC’s targets, developing countries won’t go anywhere near them unless developed countries go first, and developed countries won’t go unless developing countries join them.

As a carbon tax naysayer, I cringed in anticipation of the moment, during Julia Gillard’s recent China visit, when she would don the hard hat and fluoro jacket, turn up at a factory churning out state-of-the art solar panels, and intone on this as a future we have to embrace. But it never happened. When the official engagements were over, she and Tim toddled off on a tour of the Forbidden City. You get the distinct impression that for the first couple, Japan, Korea and China were little more than a dull prelude to the excitement of the royal wedding.

Still, Gillard’s failure to bang on about clean technology in China was odd. Perhaps the itinerary was too crammed. Or maybe it’s her feeble political skills. After all, the claim that China, our largest trading partner, is tackling climate change head-on, happens to be her strongest pitch. “You know“, she said on the ABC’s Q&A, “China [is] closing down a dirty coal-fired power generation facility at the rate of one every one or two weeks. Putting up a wind turbine at the rate of one every hour. They set their own targets by 2020 of reducing carbon pollution by 40 to 45 per cent per unit of GDP”. For this stew of distortions and half-truths, she needs all the media stunts she can get. 

Since the Copenhagen farce, most Australians have turned off the “world is acting” mantra. The snooze at Cancun, Barack Obama’s mid-term shellacking, the retreat of some American states, Stephen Harper’s return in Canada, amongst others, are all grist for the mill. The present state of world climate action is easy to sum up. While everyone pays lip-service to the IPCC’s targets, developing countries won’t go anywhere near them unless developed countries go first, and developed countries won’t go unless developing countries join them.

True, it’s hard to tell whether key leaders do believe the science, but can’t see a way through domestic obstacles, or just think the science is tripe. Either way, the stalemate is such a fixture of contemporary international affairs that it deserves a title of its own. Try “The Global Climate Standoff”, or GCS.

It’s easier to account for the willing lip-service. Under the UN’s climate framework, vast sums of money flow to the developing world.

Anyone who thinks China and other developing countries are acting on climate change should think again. For evidence that the GCS rules the diplomatic circuit, take a look at the BRICS Summit, held on the Chinese island of Sanya last month. BRICS stands for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, an emergent bloc with far-reaching implications for the world’s balance of power. All five heads of state were there, including, as host, China’s Hu Jintao. Climate change didn’t top the agenda, but it featured in the joint declaration.

Amid a lot of fine-sounding sentiments, the declaration hoped for a successful outcome at the next climate conference, “in line with the principle of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities”. 

A typical piece of UN jargon, “common but differentiated responsibilities” is a lynch-pin phrase. It’s the basis in international law for the developing world’s “after you” stance. Australians deserve to know more about it, but don’t rely on the government to enlighten us. There’s more to it than an echo of the proverbial fake-watch peddler: “Is this a real Rolex? Yes sir, same but different”.

An essential principle of the UN’s framework, “comm but diff” debuted in the 1992 Kyoto Protocol. As a background assumption, Kyoto notes “that the largest share of historical and current global emissions of greenhouse gases has originated in developed countries, that per capita emissions in developing countries are still relatively low and that the share of global emissions originating in developing countries will grow to meet their social and development needs”. Though they like to conceal it, Gillard, Combet, Brown and co know full well that from the UN’s perspective, Australia, along with other developed countries, has to outpace most of the world, including China.    

Following from that, Kyoto says the “Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof”. You are to blame, so you pay the price.

Twenty years on, the BRICS economies have grown by leaps and bounds, and so have their emissions. China is now the world’s largest emitter. Yet “comm but diff” is still going strong. Granted, emissions per capita of BRICS countries are lower than ours. But that’s irrelevant. For the purpose of preventing climate change, if the IPCC is to be credited, it’s absolute volumes that matter. If the BRICS countries take a back seat, as current arrangements permit, emissions will keep soaring.

And yes, the Chinese are taking a back seat. Their climate program is bracketed by two principles, “comm but diff“ and “carbon intensity”. Both have just been restated. The former at April’s BRICS Summit, the latter in the 12th Five-Year Plan of the National People’s Congress, adopted in March.

“Climate intensity” is an opaque idea, tailor-made to mislead. Gillard made good use of it in her Q&A appearance, saying the Chinese “set their own targets by 2020 of reducing carbon pollution by 40 to 45 per cent per unit of GDP [on 2005 levels]”. To a casual listener, this sounds like a plan to slash emissions by 40 to 45 per cent. But the words “per unit of GDP” mean otherwise. If achieved, China will have reduced the amount of carbon it emits to produce each dollar of output (or other currency). But every extra dollar of output still means extra emissions. Considering China’s exploding GDP, emissions will go on escalating, possibly at a slower rate but possibly not. That’s well short of the IPCC’s roadmap to salvation.

This is perfectly clear to the sino-sensitive Americans. They’re not about to “take the lead” any time soon. Interest in climate change has ebbed away since Al Gore’s glory days, thanks to Climategate, some unusually cold winters and a fragile economy. There’s no mood to cede even more economic sovereignty to China. Unless he finishes the 2012 campaign ruling out unilateral emission cuts, Obama can kiss his second term goodbye. Expect the GCS to be with us for a while yet. And here? We’re being told a new tax will save the planet. Madness.