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Sustain to gain: December 2009 Archives

Why did Copenhagen end in a disaster? Of course, there are a multitude of reasons. The negotiations were not well prepared, the personal dynamics did not work out very well. A major point is probably that the negotiations were overloaded with too much content and too high complexity. Consider for example that a global cap requires binding commitment from 193 countries, or at least of 17 countries that emit more than 90% of all greenhouse gases. If one country, for what reason whatsoever, does not agree to its "appropriate share" (assuming for the moment that such a share can be determined), then other countries will have reduced incentives to stick with their original commitments. A simultaneous global monetary transfer does not simplify matters.

Beyond these general issues it is very clear that the global powers failed in assuming their respective responsibilities.

European Union. The European Union was close to upscale its commitment of 20% reduction from 1990 till 2020 to 30% or 40%. As a coal dependent country, Poland blocked this target. However, it is also a sign of weak leadership of Merkel, Sarkozy and Brown that they could not forge a deal with Poland. Germany embarrassed itself with its new minister of development, Dirk Niebel, who wants any climate fund not to be additional of existing development aid.

United States: The United States could not agree to any numbers. The major problem, of course, is the US Senate where a 3–4% reduction until 2020 (with baseline year 1990) is still up in the air. Hence, Obama could not even commit to this low number. Furthermore, the financial contribution for adaptation in the world's poorest nations is not more than a third of that what the EU and Japan committed each for 2010–2012. Here, Obama could have shown much more leadership. Somewhat worrying is the discourse within U.S. media, providing the playing field for disappointing US policies. The scope of the overall challenge is rarely mentioned. In the New York Times, some hacked e-mails were blown up to a big story without getting the context right. As a result of wildly fragmented story lines, it is possible that a significant minority of US senators considers climate change to be a scam.


By now China is the world largest GHG emitter. Without China, there is no solution. China displays some political will in reducing the carbon intensity of it economy. However, China does not agree to a binding cap while it would have financial resources at hand to realize ambitious measures. China played a very self-confident role in Copenhagen, and wants to be understood as a global leader. However, for a global leader one ingredient is missing: assuming responsibility (see also the US and the EU).

Enough of the blame. Let's look for a way out of this mess. One big problem is that the discussion was framed in terms of burden sharing, money to be paid, and economic loss. This is the facile view of the story.

There is also another, bright perspective. It is bottom-up, as pointed out by Californian governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Nobel prize-winner Elinor Ostrom. Let us look at the specific perspective of the above mentioned world regions (real action probably has to come from communities, climbing up the political decision-making ladder).

Consider that a first mover towards ambitious emission reductions will gain also most of the resulting economic advantages (results of a meta-study called RECIPE). There is a clear rationale for, e.g. the EU, to commit to more ambitious targets.

The US would profit enormously from emission reductions, notably gaining energy independence. Super-costly wars in the Middle East would not be necessary anymore. This would free scarce US resources, e.g. for guaranteeing safe trade routes in world oceans – much more rewarding for the US and the world.

China has to gain a lot from reduced coal consumption. China is still the world's air pollution haven with hundred and thousands of fatalities every year. As a result, life quality is not even closely growing with GDP. In fact, there are a multitude of co-benefits for local or regional sustainable policies.

Fortunately, many citizens and politicians understand that climate change mitigation can increase social welfare, also locally. We need to work hard to realize such policies as soon as possible.

While climate-change negotiation is mostly about absolute mitigation targets, and the money flow between countries, more specific policies appear under the code word of NAMAs (nationally appropriate mitigation actions), and at various side events of research institutions and international agencies. Beside avoiding deforestation, transportation is one of the crucial issues.

Here is why: in Europe, a cap exists for industry and the electricity sector but not for the transport sector. In fact, emissions from the transport sector are rising. There is no chance that Europe will meet any ambitious post-2020 Kyoto targets without reigning in emissions from the transport sector. The same is true for US, where emissions from transport constitute an even higher percentage of overall emissions.

Emission-wise of higher importance is the rising affluence and motorization of Asian cities. While currently car ownership is relatively low, the bulk of upcoming individualized motorization is expected to come from developing countries, at least doubling the current number of cars on the road, from 1 billion to 2 billion.

What can be done about it?

Let's start with the OECD perspective, particularly EU/US. A presentation by Ottmar Edenhofer from the Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research (PIK) and myself addressed the question of how to set a cap on transport emissions, and potentially include transport into an intersectoral emission-trading scheme. "Broad is beautiful" in the sense that increasing coverage decreases abatement costs – even if a high-cost sector joins the scheme – and is superior to separate emission trading schemes. However, as also pointed out by Bracken Hendricks, from the Center of American Progress, and Thomas Becker, head of policy relations of BMW, complementary policy instruments, such as fuel efficiency standards, are required to realize abatement in transportation.

For low-carbon development in Asian cities, the community focuses on the so-called Avoid-Shift-Improve approach. Of particular importance is the "avoid" part here: the dense urban fabric shall simply be retained and modernized but not erased in favor of broad motorways (presentations on this topic, including my own, can be found here). This automatically favors the most environmentally friendly modes: walking and cycling. In this sense spatial planning, and clever land-use taxation, can provide multiple benefits, from climate change mitigation to improved accessibility, and reduced air pollution. Such measures work best as part of policy packages, i.e. together with investments in public transit, and restriction of car use. Half-baked measures will not work. It is not clear how the benefits of these policy packages can be quantified, and be included in some sort of extended policy CDM. Perhaps, one should rather focus on capacity building and leveraged financing and grants via international funding agencies.

In the side-event of the 'Bridging-the-Gap' initiative, whose purpose is to get transportation into a post-Copenhagen treaty, climate ambassadors from Costa Rica, South Africa, France and South Korea gave excellent statements on their perspective on transort and climate. As a highlight the chief negotiator of Costa Rica explained the transport issue in depth, emphasizing the status dimension of the automobile. In fact, on their way to carbon-neutrality in 2021, Costa Rica understands the transport sector to be the major challenge.