The Climate Change Flap at the G8: A Spat over Detail, not Substance

Mar 07

news in the lead-up to the G8 meeting here in Rostock is the dispute
over the proposed declaration on climate change. German Chancellor
Angela Merkel wants the rich countries to make a commitment to limit
global warming to two degrees centigrade. This will involve cutting
greenhouse gas emissions to 50 per cent of their 1990 levels by 2050
and increasing energy efficiency by 50 per cent by 2020. This had drawn
predictable opposition from George W. Bush. However, to contain further
damage to his battered image, Bush announced his intention of calling a
conference of the biggest greenhouse gas polluters to deal with global
warming. This has alarmed Merkel, who wants to keep the process
securely within the United Nations.


It is tempting to compliment Merkel, as many have done, but anybody
would look good beside Bush. Indeed, a close look at the G 8 draft
declaration that has emerged under the German presidency reveals that
this is more a quarrel over detail than over substance.

Given the immediate, extreme threat posed by global warming underlined
by the most recent report of the International Panel on Climate Change
(IPCC), the 50 per cent reduction from1990 levels by 2050 figure is
simply too little too late. As the German Green MP Barbel Hohn noted at
a Berlin conference on Sunday, the rich countries should be talking
about at least an 80 per cent cutback.

Growth is Still Sacrosanct

The leaked draft reveals why Merkel cannot offer more. The guiding
principle of the document's approach to climate change is to "decouple
economic growth from energy use." In other words, economic growth
remains central and sacrosanct, meaning no cuts are proposed in
consumption levels. For instance, instead of calling for a radical
cutback in automobile use, the declaration accepts as given that the
number of motor vehicles will double to 1.2 billion by 2020, and the
challenge is to expand production and accelerate development of
non-fossil fuel alternatives for future cars such as synthetic biofuels
and C02-free hydrogen.

The reason the draft declaration cannot call for deeper cuts in
greenhouse gas emissions is that its authors realize that maintaining a
growing "efficient and competitive economy" while radically reducing
greenhouse gas emissions is not technologically feasible at this point.
The solution: lower the targets and try to convince the public that
this is simply being realistic.

The G8 Approach: Look for Technofixes

There are three elements in the declaration's strategy for dealing with
climate change. One is increasing energy efficiency-or getting more
bang for every unit of energy generated.

A second element is diversification of the means of generating energy.
Here the draft pays the obligatory nod to renewable energy sources like
wind and solar, but the emphasis is on nuclear. Indeed, the G 8 draft
goes out of its way to favorably position an energy source long opposed
by the environmental movement owing to its proven dangers as a key
alternative owing to its allegedly minimal contribution to global
warming. Specifically, the draft states that the G 8 leaders "endorse
the peaceful use of nuclear energy by those interested countries that
are also committed to non-proliferation and international nuclear
safety standards…endorse international initiatives to further develop
peaceful and carbon-free nuclear energy and to realize the potential
for nuclear energy to contribute to the energy needs of developing
countries…[and] will examine creative ways for international finance
to make nuclear energy more available to developing countries."

The third element is technological innovation. Here the document
stresses accelerated development of futuristic technologies to address
global warming. The paper specifically urges "prioritizing national and
international research and technology cooperation…of the different
carbon capture technologies and to clarify geotechnical conditions for
secure CO2 storage." Indeed, this is a document that is obsessed with
technofixes, among them "clean coal, carbon capture and storage,
offshore windpower, second generation biofuels, hydrogen…" James
Lovelock of Gaia fame may be wrong in his advocacy of nuclear power as
a way to deal with climate change but he is right that there will be
something like a 40-year gap before such new technologies become really
feasible-and by then it will be too late.

The climate change section of G8 declaration is really but one long and
all-too transparent exercise to get around the reality that the only
real effective response to climate change is radically reduced economic
growth rates and consumption levels, particularly in the North, and in
the very near future.

Promoting Investment and TRIPs

The other parts of the declaration are even worse.

Curiously enough, the declaration begins with a long disquisition on
the merits of foreign investment flows that is addressed to developing
countries who are warned that "erecting barriers" to capital flows will
"result in a loss of prosperity." According to the document, "freedom
of investment is a crucial pillar of economic growth, prosperity, and
employment." It does not take too long to sense that the G8 is telling
particularly China, Brazil, India, and the other dynamic developing
economies that their investment regimes need to be more hospitable to
western investors.

Continuing in this vein, the second part of the document is also
addressed to developing countries. Innovation, it says, is central to
economic growth, and it can only continue to play this role if there is
"strong protection and enforcement of intellectual property rights."
The writing bears the fingerprints of the northern pharmaceutical
industry and the high tech lobbies. Again, it does not take any special
effort to figure out that the G 8 is warning Thailand, India, Brazil,
and the African countries to stop using methods like compulsory
licensing to enable their populations to gain access to cheap drugs to
fight HIV-AIDs and other pandemics, and telling China and the Southeast
Asian countries to restrict the diffusion of advanced technologies
through tighter enforcement of corporate intellectual property claims.

Targeting China, Recycling Africa

There is, interestingly, a section entitled "Responsibility for Raw
Materials: Transparency and Sustainable Growth." The G8, the document
states, seek "to support resource rich countries in their efforts to
further expand their resource potentials while promoting sustainable
development, human rights, and good governance." Why, one asks, is the
G 8 suddenly concerned with "increased transparency'' in the extractive
sector when their corporations have so long opposed efforts to control
their depredations in the developing world? The answer is transparent
in their "call on our trading partners to refrain from restraints on
trade and distortion of competition in contravention of WTO rules and
to observe market economy principles." China, which has been concluding
scores of mineral extraction agreements in Africa, Latin America, and
Southeast Asia, is undoubtedly the main target of this section. The
document reflects the fear among many rich country governments and
corporations that the Chinese might end up shutting them out of many
resource-rich areas.

As for the G 8 Declaration on Africa, it is mainly a recycling of old
unfulfilled promises of raising development aid, along with the usual
platitudes about promoting good governance, institutionalizing
"market-friendly" development frameworks, more effective and cleaner
public financial management, and "improving our response to fragile
states." The Financial Times notes that "At the Gleneagles summit in
2005, the G8 committed itself to increasing overall annual aid levels
by $50 billion by 2010 and doubling aid to Africa. Official figures
show almost all these countries are behind their targets."

We usually do not find much to agree with the Times editorial page, but
this time it is hard to dispute its judgment that "Nobody expects much
from this increasingly outmoded talking shop of the complacent rich."


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