Long road after Bali breakthrough

If Bali provided the roadmap for a new deal on climate change, the talks in Bangkok last week were akin to choosing the car. Climate negotiators will reassemble in Bonn, Germany, in June, and again in August in Ghana.

Some real driving might finally start to take place when ministerial-level meetings take place next December in Poznan, Poland. So far, it appears that everyone is at least on board for the ride, even if major roadblocks stand in the way of a comprehensive deal for all countries to reduce emissions that delegates hope to reach in Copenhagen in December 2009.

Not surprisingly, the haggling is over money.

Last year the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), comprised largely of scientists, found more than a 90 percent chance that human activity was responsible for climate change. All governments have agreed with that.

However, who will pay for emissions cuts remains an open question. The major costs are linked to mitigation and adaptation, two of the four key “building blocks” of any potential deal. Mitigation entails stemming global greenhouse gas emissions, while adaptation involves measures taken by countries to deal with the worst effects of climate change, including rising sea levels, water shortages and changing weather patterns.

Most of the costs depend on the extent to which greenhouse gases will be cut. Between 1970 and 2004, emissions from the six greenhouse gases under the Kyoto Protocol — CO2, CH4, N2O, HFCs, PFCs and SF6 — increased by 70 percent. If no action is taken, the IPCC says they will rise another 25-90 percent between 2000 and 2030.

However, the UN is hoping to limit global mean temperature increases to 2-2.4 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels to prevent rapid environmental change, including melting ice sheets, rising sea levels, shifts in ocean currents and wind patterns and the death of the Amazon rainforest. This would require emissions to peak by 2015 and decline to around 50 percent of current levels by 2050.

To do that, the IPCC says it would cost three percent of global GDP over 25 years, or 0.12 percent per year. This number is agreed upon by “99 percent” of scientists, says John Hay, chief spokesman for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which is mediating the new deal on emissions.

“Nobody knows the how much it will cost if entire cities are wiped out,” he said.

Still, the remaining one percent that disputes the IPCC has found a voice at the conference, possibly because journalists aren’t finding much else to write about.

Heading into the talks, the European Union made the boldest proposal for emissions cuts, saying industrialized countries should cut emissions by 25 to 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2020. By contrast, Japan has proposed cutting emissions by 11 percent in 2020 from 2005 levels, a feat it claims would cost more than $500 billion. That would be equivalent to only a four percent cut from 1990 levels.

World Growth, a pro-business NGO, claims that the EU’s proposal would cut economic growth in developing countries in Asia by between 12 and 15 percent. A loss of one percent of global GDP, it claimed in an April 1 statement, would lead to a 15 percent GDP cut in China, 12 percent in India, 12 percent for Asean countries and four percent for Brazil.

The UNFCC has dismissed World Growth as the purveyors of pseudoscience, and they may have a point. In an April 4 release disputing the urgency of climate change, World Growth contradicted the data it presented earlier, claiming this time that a one percent cut in world GDP would cut growth by 14 percent in China, and nine to 11 percent in India and the Asean economies.

Whatever the truth may be, the steady stream of press releases questioning the IPCC findings underlines just how difficult it will be to reach an agreement that brings the US fully on board. The Republican Party in the US largely sees global warming as hocus pocus cooked up by Al Gore and his leftist friends in Europe, and the US delegation in Bangkok warned that measures that may hurt the global economy could undermine poverty eradication in developing countries, which is a stated goal of the UNFCCC.

Now delegates are waiting for George W. Bush to leave office in January 2009, and hoping that a Democrat gets elected. Although Republican nominee John McCain has acknowledged the need to take action against climate change, it is unclear if pro-business groups will force him to water down his stance as the campaign drags on.

So far the US has taken a back seat, supporting Japan’s controversial sectoral approach in which binding emissions cuts targets would apply to specific industries like steel or cement. Developing countries say this favors rich countries that have more advanced technology to keep emissions down.

The first set of talks after Bali revealed the deep fissures that split the developing and developed world, and set the stage for the fight to come. With so much at stake for the environment as well as the economy, a comprehensive deal on emissions cuts that all parties will respect seems like a long ways away.