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Opportunity Lost at Katowice Climate Conference

Avinash Persaud ( is Special Advisor to the Prime Minister of Dominica on Recovery from Maria, and Chairman of London- and Mumbai-based Elara Capital.

The commitment to equity continues to elude climate change solutions.


Avinash Persaud writes:

Donald Trump’s denial of human-made climate change, and the reluctant position of Brazil and India meant that no deal at the climate summit in Katowice, Poland was a real possibility. It would be just one more in a spate of recent defeats for multilateralism. But, after two weeks of wrangling, almost 200 countries signed up to a 133-page rule book on carbon emissions. The rule book is designed to implement the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change to limit the rise in global temperatures to below 20C.

The Katowice Climate Change Package—to give the rule book its official title—details how countries should monitor and report their greenhouse gas emissions, and the efforts they are taking to reduce them. A cynic would argue that there is no enforcement mechanism. What happens if countries breach their emissions target? Juxtaposed with that, however, are the substantial strides in energy efficiency and switch away from fossil fuels that have happened in recent years. Without global enforcement measures, the energy required to produce an additional percentage of global gross domestic product (GDP) has fallen by an average of 32% since 1990. It has fallen even more in emerging economies than in the advanced economies. This is a reminder that change is possible and that the real challenge is not about the technology or designing the right mechanisms but about equity between nations. It is the Politics, Stupid!

To illustrate the equity issue, let us imagine that we took the limit of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that would keep global temperatures from rising more than 20C and divided this by the world’s current population. We then used this number to allocate a limit to each country’s contribution to the global stock of greenhouse gases. Many advanced countries would be over their limit already as a result of hundreds of years of industrialisation. They would have to cut emissions so dramatically as to cause a reduction in their GDP. Emerging economies, on the other hand, would have room to expand. If we allowed trading of these stock limits between nations, there would be a wealth transfer from the rich to the poor. We would solve one problem by addressing another.

Imagine instead, that we took the number of new emissions that would keep us below a 20C rise, and divided this amount by the population to allocate annual emission targets for countries. This approach would dramatically curtail the amount of growth of energy consumption in the poorest countries with growing populations and provide room for richer countries with their declining populations, and investments in energy efficiency to continue to grow. We would solve the climate change problem at the expense of entrenched inequality. Katowice is closer to this approach. It is a framework of new emission targets. Climate change agreements are just the latest way in which national inequalities are being expressed and played out.

Katowice tries to address the issue of equity in three ways. First, emission targets for developing countries are intended to be more long term than for developed countries, sufficiently so that there is a fight on as to where the border lies between the developing and the developed. At Katowice, Turkey argued that it should be redefined by the conference as a developing country. Second, trading of emission targets is envisaged. This provides more room for developing countries to grow emissions. Third, Katowice earmarks $100 billion per year for “climate finance” for developing countries.

Unfortunately, these are mere sops to developing countries. Last year’s Atlantic hurricane season alone caused loss and damages far more than $100 billion. The carbon trading system has not been set up, thus facilitating flows to rich countries, and not poor countries. The historic iniquity remains, of rich countries which became rich by putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in the past while decrying developing countries for doing so today.

Improvements in global energy efficiency reveal something else. Many nations have shown the will and ability to cut emissions primarily through the use of the “polluter pays” principle and forms of carbon taxes. The issue is dealing with the international spillover effects of greenhouse gases. National tax revenues do not float across borders. Climate change spillover effects are highly concentrated and fall disproportionately on those living in low-lying coastal areas and islands as a result of warmer seas, more vociferous cyclones, and rising sea levels. These populations are experiencing climate change today, yet Katowice pays no particular attention to them.

Perhaps, we should require all national emission taxes to have a 20% international surcharge to compensate those who live by the sea for the losses and damages they suffer from the climate actions of others.



Updated On : 11th Jan, 2019


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