As we move into the last days of climate negotiations in Copenhagen, the chances of securing a binding agreement of all countries continues to look less and less likely. The primary culprit, according to the New York Times, is the G77, a group of 130 developing countries that have negotiated as a block since arriving. But as the Times notes, since they have very different needs and incomes, the main thing they have in common is their ability to rail against the rich developed world and hold up negotiations. Indeed, it seems that the main impediment to progress (at least from the perspective of the organizers) has been the continued focus on process rather than substance.
As any progressive knows, the G77 countries certainly have a lot to rail against, in terms of unfairness in many arenas, including climate change. Unfortunately, being right doesn’t always mean getting what you want or getting what is fair.
Everyone is correct that the developed world, including the United States, should morally do more, in terms of both emission cuts and in terms of adaptation assistance. But the sad truth, of course, is that the wealthier countries have never really understood or accepted responsibility for worldwide poverty in any significant form, so perhaps it is naïve to assume that they would in the climate change circumstance. Thus, though we do have discussions of the developed world being “responsible” for historic emissions, it is unrealistic to assume that climate change will finally be the place in which the developed world completely changes its attitude on fairness in the developing world.
Instead we have different drivers of climate policy already on the ground. The real action in climate in the last few months has been the movement of the private sector. Manufacturers, financial firms, and businesses around the world are preparing for regulation under a cap and trade system. In many ways they are ahead of the political debate, and at least in the case of the United States, are significant drivers. Politicians in turn discuss the economic benefits in moving forward with alternative energy development (which will be a reality in the future assuming some technological breakthroughs). For those surrounded by this environment in the developed world, it has been easy to simply envision domestic and international agreements with a cap and trade driver, financial transfers to the developing world, and a rosy future with windmills, tidal power, and electric cars.
This climate change perspective has come so far, it seems difficult to imagine an international agreement that is not broadly consistent with it. And while this will fail to be fair in any way, this is certainly better for the developing world than the status quo.
If one looks at what the developed world is offering now compared with just over a year ago, progress is substantial, and should not be rejected. Climate change adaptation funding on the table ($100 billion a year according to Secretary of State Clinton’s offer made this morning) offers a chance for significant wealth transfer to the developing world, particularly if it is funded by a tax on the private sector (most likely cap and trade participants).
If there is a significant failure here, all progress won’t stop. The developed countries will likely continue on their pledged reduction paths (in the Unites States, through the EPA if not Congress), and if the major developing countries, such as China and India, really meet their future pledges and drop emissions even more in the next few years, there is some hope of slowing climate change. But the chance for major assistance for the poorest countries will have been lost, at least for a while.
At this point, no one expects a new treaty, but if the spirit of the conference changes, real progress can still be made. The public position of the G77 has been that the developed world is bad, that we must have Kyoto, and that we shouldn’t depend on carbon trading for mitigation or adaptation funding. But neither China, nor particular political leaders interested in making sure blame is assigned, represent the best interests of the majority of the world’s poor. Unfortunately, for the lesser developed countries, such as Bolivia, or the even poorer nations in Africa, failure to move forward only spells disaster. While the richer countries can survive expected climate disruptions (though at a large cost to their GDP), the poorer countries cannot. Thus, it again will fall to the poorest developing countries to make a move — to indicate a willingness to move forward under a new agreement with flexibility mechanisms and accept adaptation funding from carbon trading. The world’s poorest deserve more, but a half a loaf is better than none.