Copenhagen Climate Conference

(This is the final chapter in Eberhard Rhein’s Malta Lecture on Climate Change).

To tackle climate change effectively, the international community has to act jointly. No individual country has enough clout to reduce global emissions if the rest of the world keeps increasing them. That is what we have seen since 1997 under Kyoto.

Governments consider action against climate change as a burden, because it implies higher energy prices. They equate cheap energy with rapid economic development and consider high energy prices as an obstacle to economic development. But this is not true. High energy prices are no obstacle to prosperity.

The price of energy has ceased to be a major cost factor for manufacturing industries, let alone for services which make up two thirds of national incomes. It does therefore no longer determine international competitiveness: Germany is the leading industrial exporter among developed countries, though its electricity rates are among the highest on earth.

High electricity rates, excise taxes on gasoline, fuel efficiency standards for light vehicles, tough insulation standards for buildings, phasing out of incandescent lights etc. may lead to higher energy prices, but they need not negatively affect the international competivity of an economy. Still, business continues claiming that energy is a major cost factor with an important bearing on their international competitiveness.

There are only few industrial sectors where the cost of energy and electricity does matter: Aluminium, steel, heavy chemicals, nitrogen fertiliser, cement, cellulose, petroleum products are among them.

As long as governments believe that they have to provide their economy with cheap energy, even at the price of subsidising it, it will be next to impossible for non-fossil energies to rapidly take over, as their costs are likely to remain higher for the next 20 years.

In the interest of curbing climate change, humanity therefore needs to learn that high prices of fossil energy are necessary for stimulating higher energy efficiency and the progressive replacement of fossil by alternative sources of energy. Policy makers therefore have to grasp that it is possible to engage in active climate policy without incurring economic losses. The debate has to focus on the opportunities of tackling climate change.

Unfortunately heads of government, legislators and government officials attend climate negotiations with the intention of making a minimum of “concessions”. This is also the predicament of the Copenhagen Climate Conference and the main reason why a poor outcome is much more likely than an effective one.

We have to see the Copenhagen climate conference in a long-term perspective. Before 2100, humanity must have cut its green house emissions to zero: By the end of century, humanity must have replaced fossil energy by alternatives, essentially renewables energies, possible still some nuclear power, maybe a beginning fusion power, if that were ever to become operational.

In case of failure, temperatures will have risen well beyond the 2 centigrade increase over 1850 that humanity must not exceed without risking unprecedented calamities. 90 years for a complete transformation of our energy supply is not a long period.

Copenhagen should be an important step towards that end. It should focus on policy measures to be taken by major emitter countries in order to reduce green house gas emissions or in the case of emerging countries to dramatically slow down their growth rates.

Abstract reduction targets, as laid down in the Kyoto Protocol, should be no more than indicative. The essence of the negotiations should be focused on concrete measures to be taken in the next 10, 20 and 30 years.

A ban on fossil energy subsidies, energy efficiency standards for automobiles, buildings, electric appliances and lighting, a progressive phasing out of fossil-fired power plants should be on the menu of every country. Countries with major energy-intensive industries and well functioning administrative machinery might also include cap and trade systems.

Each country should commit to define 10 year climate strategy, assisted by those with experience. Each country must be accountable to the international community for taking appropriate measures corresponding to its emission level. Programs must transparent and subject to formal and informal peer scrutiny.

The Copenhagen Conference

It is unlikely that the Copenhagen Conference will follow the above prescriptions.

Due to the particularities of the UN framework in which the negotiations proceed, the international community has got lost in adjustment measures and international mechanisms for finance and technology transfer.

It has taken almost two years to agree on an agenda, a negotiation format and chairs.

  • Negotiations will formally take place in two working groups, one on further commitments concerning mitigation, preservation of forests and climate adaptation measures for the parties of the Kyoto Protocol, the other on cooperative action concerning finance and technology for all parties.
  • There will be four negotiating rounds each lasting up to 8 weeks.
  • There will be a chair and co-chair for each working group. In the Kyoto Protocol WG Harold Dovland (Norway) will chair until March, for the rest of the year the G 77 and China will propose a Chair. In the second working group Michael Cutajar, one of the most experienced international climate diplomats, will chair throughout the year.
  • In June 2009, the 184 odd parties will start negotiating a draft text containing language for the “common vision”, the objectives for mitigation, the package for adaptation measures, including an international adaptation fund, and the package for financial and technological cooperation.

20 years after the signature of the Kyoto Protocol, the international community should have the courage to start from a fresh approach. But the Kyoto Protocol is convenient for all parties: the group of 77 does not need to take any action, and the OECD countries can hide behind the refusal of the emerging countries to take bigger commitments.

In terms of “substance” and negotiating focus the G 77 insists on putting in place an international fund for financing investments in climate-friendly technologies. The OECD countries are willing to accept these demands, if emerging countries start taking action against climate change, too.

Considering the present state of play it looks next to impossible to achieve meaningful results before the end of the year. The interest of many parties to get a free ride might once again outweigh their common responsibility for the stability of the earth’s climate in 2100 and beyond.

This will only change if the USA and the EU engage in a resolute diplomatic offensive to convince other key emitter countries of the need for joining the international effort. China will be crucial. This campaign has begun, thanks to the initiative taken by president Obama to invite the 16 major emitter countries to a two-da meeting in Washington April 27-28th.

These are the essential priorities for a meaningful outcome of the Copenhagen climate conference.

All major emitter countries must come on board

Less than 20 major emitter countries (USA, EU and Japan, Korea, Canada and Australia, China, Russia, India, Mexico, Brazil, Indonesia, GCC, Iran and South Africa) account for about 80 percent of global green house emissions.

The Copenhagen negotiations will therefore only be successful if these agree to substantially cut their emissions.

According to IEA projections more than 80 percent of the increase in global energy demand 2006-30 will come from non-OECD countries. Emerging countries will become the driving force behind climate change, while the emissions from developed countries have started stabilising, though at unacceptably high levels.

From a global perspective, it is therefore necessary to direct the focus on emerging countries and help them generate economic growth with a much lower fossil energy input than the rich countries have done during the 20th century. If China, India etc. decided to cover their rising power demand by wind, nuclear and solar inputs, and in parallel to apply CCS technology for coal-fired power plants in the next 2-3 decades, they would make an immensely positive contribution to the global climate.

Reduction targets must be globally meaningful

By 2050, humanity needs to have halved its C02 emissions compared to 1990 emission levels. That is, according to present scientific consensus, necessary to prevent the concentration of C02 in the atmosphere reaching dangerously high levels for the climate.

This long-term target should determine the objectives for 2020.

There is agreement among scientists on the need to achieve an emission peak around 2020 and start a trend reversal. It would be suicidal if humanity continued with the frenetic rise of emissions since 2000, estimated at 3 percent p.a.

To reach that, developed countries need to make the greatest effort, but emerging countries will also to have contribute to the global targets. Their share in global emissions, rapidly rising towards 50 percent, makes such a contribution a mathematical necessity.

The burden sharing must be fair

The higher a country’s per capita emissions, the higher its reduction target should be. From a perspective of global equity the average citizen on earth should emit no more than 1.5 tons of C02 in 2050 in view of halving global C02 emissions to 14 GT by 2050!

It is necessary to confront Western societies with the enormity of the challenge they have to confront. At Copenhagen first steps have to be made towards reduce the huge differences of per capita emissions between rich and poor countries (USA 20 tons, China 4 tons, sub-Sahara Africa <1 ton). Everything will hinge on the USA.

Effective monitoring is indispensable for effectiveness

Without proper monitoring of performances the system cannot function.

No government wants to be under control from an international authority.

Still, the international community will need a trustworthy authority for the supervision of the reductions and the rapid change-over to a global low-carbon economy.

All contracting parties of the “Copenhagen Agreement” should submit their climate action programmes to an international “Climate Agency” with the authority to publicly censure non-performing countries.

At some stage, it may become necessary to take non- performers to the UNSEC for violating international security. Climate change will, indeed, become a bigger security threat to humanity than nuclear proliferation.

Mobilise financing for the energy revolution

Enough funding will need to be forthcoming for the huge investments required in energy efficiency and alternative sources of energy

During the preparatory talks this issue has unduly dominated the scene. Emerging countries keep arguing they lack the financial and technological means for a successful and speedy transition towards a low -carbon economy.

According to IEA estimates, humanity will have to invest $ 1000 billion annually in higher energy efficiency and alternative sources of energy. This appears a huge amount. But in fact it is only six-fold what humanist has invested in 2007- and 2008. It should be easily possible to mobilise the required amounts, if governments give the right incentives and fossil energy prices continue rise.

Whatever the amount of funding required, the international community should not try to set up another international financial institution. The Word Bank has a long experience in financing energy projects. It has ample means for funding. It should suffice for the governors to instruct the Bank stop financing conventional coal-fired power plants. If humanity is convinced that global warming is about to become a scourge for humanity it has adapt the priorities of international financial institutions accordingly.


In conclusion, climate change will not go away. On the contrary, in the course of the century it is most likely to aggravate. Its main consequences – droughts, floods, storms, rising sea levels – will be felt by more and more people.

Governments will improve their understanding of climate change and become progressively more open to action, from which they have shied away during the last 20 years when the issue seemed less pressing.

But climate change does not yet hurt enough! The Copenhagen Climate Conference in December 2009 may therefore come a bit too early, and its results may not be what scientists ask the international community to do. We must live with this shortcoming, but be ready to intervene at any moment to adapt and strengthen the measures taken.

Climate policy will become a major concern for the international community in the course of the 21st century. All governments will have to take binding commitments to act; no major country should get away with a free ride. The international community will have to establish a more effective system of monitoring compliance.

This will change the way the international community functions. It will have to introduce sanctions for misbehaviour. When the sustainability of the planet is at stake, humanity will have to put in place more effective rules for global governance, starting with climate and military issues.

The 21st century will be the first century of truly global dimensions. This goes for trade, economies, finance, legal systems, and regulatory frameworks. But it also applies to everything related to the earth’s climate, the most precious common good humanity possesses.

Eberhard Rhein 07.04.09

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