Sunday, January 3, 2010

From Beijing to Copenhagen: I Don't Mourn the Missing 2050 Emissions Targets

by Tom Fiddaman, guest blogger

(Note: Tom is a friend and colleague of Bob's, who attended the Copenhagen Climate Conference as part of the CROADS team. With a Ph.D. in System Dynamics from MIT, Tom has researched the relationship between economic activity and environmental change, and looked at the potential effectiveness of a carbon tax and other schemes such as cap and trade. His reflections on Copenhagen and Beijing are well worth reading. – Xujun)

I've finally recovered from a long and frustrating week at COP15 in Copenhagen. Like many, I never actually made it into the conference center itself - even though I had the needed secondary pass, registration lines were just too long. I bailed out when the Danish police started passing out coffee in the queue. Instead, I spent the week with the Climate Interactive team, analyzing potential proposals, talking to the press, and preparing briefing materials.

 Copenhagen: Art & Carbon (photo by Tom Fiddaman)

What unfolded was a bizarre flurry of contradictory official and unofficial draft texts of an agreement. In the final hours of the conference, language about hard targets, enforcement, and other encouraging steps gradually disappeared. In the end, the assembled parties approved a decision that merely "takes note" of the nth hour "Copenhagen Accord" presented by the US and BASIC countries.

Many were bitterly disappointed by this outcome. I wasn't, primarily because my standards were low going in. It was clear from the start that individual country proposals did not add up to anything remotely like a future that limits temperature change to 2C (roughly 450ppm CO2 equivalent) or even 3C (550 ppm). A binding agreement for a massive change in course would have been astounding.

I also don't mourn the lack of hard 2050 emissions targets, for three reasons. First, statements about 2050 emissions are probably worth a bit less than the average political promise, i.e. next to nothing. Second, it's actually quite uncertain what emissions trajectory is needed to reach a 2C future. Our best guess is that global emissions would have to fall by 50% or so relative to 1990, but we could easily be unlucky enough to need 80% cuts or more. Third, while early emissions cuts appear to be cheap and beneficial in complementary ways, it's uncertain how fast and deeply we can cut over the long haul.

While hard long-term targets don't make sense, it does make sense to know where the world is aiming. I think it's laudable that the 2C temperature goal language survived in the final document. If taken seriously, it implies an emissions path very different from what developing countries have been willing to propose: a peak in emissions by 2020 to 2030, and substantial reductions thereafter. That's remarkably different from the kind of thinking I heard from Chinese policy analysts during a recent trip to Beijing and at a CNAS war game a year ago. The prevailing mental model - also evident in statements from India - seems to be that climate is a problem created by the developed world, so developing nations need time to grow their emissions, in order to build capital serving urgent human development needs and achieve some kind of emissions parity. The problem is that the physics of climate dictate that, even if emissions in the developed world go to zero tomorrow, emissions growth in the developing world must stop and reverse within two decades to reach targets like 2C.

It may be that a future with +3C or higher temperatures is viewed as "worth it" from a development perspective. Climate impact assessment is not my area, but it seems to me that with high population densities, monsoon climates, large coastal populations, endemic tropical diseases and glacial water supplies, China and India are particularly vulnerable. When you add in the possibility of knock-on effects from regional conflict, a very warm future seems like at best a great risk to take.

That should lead one to wonder whether growth founded on cheap fuel and free CO2 emissions, which will have to be undone within the lifetime of a power plant built today, is really development at all. Rather than seeking an emissions grace period, I think developing countries should be asking themselves what it would take in the way of policy and outside support to get on a greener path. That means breaking the perceived emissions-welfare link and getting foot hold in new non-carbon technologies rather than being locked into a fossil-energy-intensive infrastructure. I think there's a lot of merit to such a path, even if one considers only the narrow self interest of countries, rather than the enlightened self interest of the world.

Copenhagen and Beijing were interesting studies in technology paths. I saw more electric bikes in a week in Beijing than I've seen everywhere else put together. However, the car was clearly king of the new streets, striking fear into the hearts of pedestrians and cyclists, even more so than in some US cities. In Copenhagen, on the other hand, bikes were low-tech but ubiquitous. Clearly the difference is not a matter of wealth, but of deliberate choices: to tax cars heavily in Denmark, while providing excellent infrastructure for cycling. To be fair, Beijing is 10x the size of Copenhagen, but it seems that there must be choices China could make today that exploit its technical and manufacturing capability to move toward a development pattern like Copenhagen, not Dallas.

The trick is to choose a new path without triggering near term disruption that leads to political revolution (a topic that came up repeatedly in conversations about actions that might slow China's GDP growth). In that sense, China and the US are really in the same boat. Both went to Copenhagen empty handed, because neither had the political basis needed to find a common ground with stronger commitments.

The challenge for the coming years, I think, is not about extracting promises of deep long term emissions cuts from the developing world. Instead, the developed countries should be thinking about how to set a credible example in the near term, by taking effective action to reduce emissions and support adaptation. Only that will create a basis of trust sufficient to enable developing countries to take the next step.


wuming said...

I agree that US came into Cop15 empty handed. There is simply no political base for any measure that would reduce the standard of living in an overt way. But I think that the case of China is very different. As I have pointed out in a previous thread, though measure against climate change is not a high priority for China, the goal is not incompatible with other Chinese priorities. China desperately wants to achieve energy security, non-carbon based energy is a long term and clean solution to the problem.

So in what sense China is different from US? Here again I appreciated your point of technological choice. China obviously made the wrong choice of promoting the culture of personal automobiles. But China, seem to me, is capable of stopping, or maybe even reversing the expansion of the automobile usage. The construction of HSRs and urban subways, and restrictions on cars from entering cities based on license plate numbers are some of the measures already been put into place. My belief is that China will find much greener ways of developing its economy within the next decade. Now it is just feeling for the next stone in the river.

Tom Fiddaman said...

wuming - I agree wholeheartedly that China has many opportunities, and hope for that next stone in the river.

However, from what I've heard in conversations (not many, so take this with a grain of salt), I'd amend your list of priorities as follows:
1. Economic growth
2. Energy security
3. Environment & environmental health
4. Climate

I've heard people say explicitly, "if GDP growth falls below 6%/yr there will be a revolution." That kind of growth-at-any-cost attitude takes a lot of potential win-win efficiency/security/emissions measures off the table. It puts everyone on a treadmill, trying to grow fast enough to stay ahead of the consequences of past growth.

Of course, China is not alone in this point of view - it's dominant nearly everywhere. It would just be really great if China could invent a different path. The policies you mention (e.g., auto restrictions) seem like a good start. I'd suggest that a self-imposed carbon price would also be beneficial, for climate, security, and health reasons.

wuming said...


The moment after I clicked on the "Post Comment" button, I realized that I have forgot to put "Economic Development" on the top of my list. So thank you for amending that.

I have observed, perhaps incorrectly, that Western views and cliches have ways to filtering back into the Chinese conversations. I am not sure if the "tipping point growth rate" is one of those cliches. Is it possible that China now has both the financial capital and political capital to endure a couple of years of sub-single digit growth?

I am sorry this particular comment is so lacking in substance. I have to think about the real issues for a while to see if I have anything new to say. But I largely agree with your post and the comment

Xujun Eberlein said...

Wuming, what you said, "China obviously made the wrong choice of promoting the culture of personal automobiles," resonates with me. About a decade ago I had arguments on this with a Beijing official who was in charge of the transportation infrastructure. When I said it's a bad idea to boost car usage in China, he got upset. "So only Americans can enjoy cars?" he asked. I think he took an environmental and practical issue to be a nationalism issue.

By the way, the discussion between you and Tom is interesting and intelligent, and one of the most civilized I've seen on a blog. Thanks to both of you.

Anonymous said...

My parent were very happy when they bought their first car, even though it is second hand and always broke down. They always envy when watching Americans driving car in the Hollywood movie. Finally their dream came true. This is the mindset of people in developing countries. I don't like driving car, partly because traffic jam and may be it is nothing special in my generation. Mindset could change, but it may take generations.