Freedman: Three Statistics for Climate Change Talks
Recently, representatives of 17 nations met in Paris as part of the Bush administration's initiative to engage the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitters to reduce the emissions that are contributing to global climate change. You can probably guess how much progress was achieved... none. But there was at least some innovative name calling.
As has become expected at such negotiations, no major breakthroughs were achieved other than an agreement by the participants to keep talking to each other. That's better than the worst that could have happened (a gunfight?), but it's far from encouraging. In the one morsel of news from the conference, German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel called President Bush's recent climate change speech a "Neanderthal speech," that was evidence of "losership, not leadership." You always can tell that a political leader is really angry when they insult someone in the same way that the other person would have insulted them, in this case by making up words.
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The wider United Nations-sponsored climate change talks in Bali, Indonesia in December ended in a similarly inconclusive fashion, with goals and guiding principles for further negotiations before the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012.
Why all the bitterness, stalemate, and name calling?
In short, the answer is a bit complicated. It's too simple, and unfair, to blame it on the Bush White House. The administration's position on climate change has certainly contributed to the increasingly rancorous nature of the recent climate talks, with growing frustration over its reluctance to commit to mandatory greenhouse gas reductions without similar commitments by developing nations.
At Bali, for example, normally staid diplomats loudly booed the United States in order to vent their frustrations. The German environment minister should take note that that turned out to be more effective than labeling the Americans Neanderthals, since the U.S. negotiators backed down from the position that was drawing the chorus of dissent.
The climate talks are difficult because they involve the central tension between the needs of the world's poor and the interests of the rich. Climate change is at its core a development issue, and its not going to be easy for the next president to broker an agreement between developing countries that are eager to achieve a higher standard of living, and industrialized countries that are hell bent on not giving up any part of their high standard of living in order to reduce emissions.
It would be a real step forward, however, if the talks would depart from their recent play book. The U.N. negotiations have so often resulted in acrimonious deadlock that I'm beginning to think they have been scripted ahead of time, although by a clinically depressed writer:
The U.S. representative demands developing countries, such as China and India, take action to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases along with industrialized nations.
China and India demand that the U.S. take action to reduce its emissions first, in accordance with the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. The United States signed that treaty in 1992.
Days 2 through 4:
"You first," "No, You first" bickering continues, interrupted by a plea for action by the Maldives, a small island nation that may be submerged by a climate-related rise in the sea level. As the Maldives representative talks, another negotiator pours a bucket of water on their head for dramatic effect. And one fish too.
Days 5 through 6:
Negotiations extend past deadline, until several negotiators fall asleep, wake up and speak, then fall asleep again. A compromise is put forward at the last minute.
Negotiations end with a press conference to portray the incremental or nonexistent progress in the best possible light.
As a primer for understanding the next round of negotiations, I propose that it is necessary to examine only three key statistics in order to discern the state of play of the climate issue in the international community. These statistics offer a window into the fundamental disagreements that are standing in the way of what scientists say would be a far less disruptive climate. The statistics have more of an influence on the negotiations than does the occupant of the White House.
Developing countries such as China and India emphasize the first two statistics, and the United States prefers that a new agreement be based on the third one.
The first statistic is carbon dioxide emissions on a per capita basis. Negotiators from China and India are seeking to have any new climate change agreement be rooted in this statistic, because it demonstrates that the average American has a far greater impact on warming the planet than the average Chinese or Indian does. For example, according to the International Energy Agency's World Energy Outlook 2007, the average Chinese person emitted only 3.9 metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2005. In contrast, Americans emit the most in the world, a whopping 21 metric tons of carbon dioxide per person, according to the web site gapminder.org. The typical European emitted less than a typical American.
However, with China's rapid development, the average Chinese person in 2030 is expected to emit as much as the average European person does today, with Indians emitting less than that. For more information on this statistic, see this gapminder video.
The second statistic is the historical share of carbon dioxide emissions. Here too, China and India lag behind the United States and Europe. According to the IEA, the U.S. and the European Union combined were responsible for more than half of the carbon dioxide emissions between 1900 and 2005. China was responsible for only eight percent, and India a paltry two percent. This too is expected to change, with China's number rising to 16 percent by 2030 (1900-2030 emissions), and India's increasing to four percent.
Still, this statistic bolsters the developing countries' argument that nations such as the U.S. created the climate problem in the first place, and therefore it should be up to them to make the first big moves to fix it. This approach is in fact enshrined in international law, through the Framework Convention.
Finally, the U.S. prefers to discuss a climate change agreement based upon the total amount of greenhouse gases emitted by each country per year. The United States and China are currently running just about even for top place in this category, with China possibly already ahead of the U.S. for the first time. China is expected to be the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the coming years, with India moving up to number 3 by 2015. The U.S. emphasizes this statistic to make its case that developing countries need to take action in concert with the industrialized countries in order for a climate regime to be effective.
Of course, there are many other statistics involved in the complicated field of climate science. However, these three statistics offer the clearest view into the negotiating positions of the major players in the climate change talks. The ways in which each country emphasizes them helps to offer clues about their negotiating positions. According to James Connaughton, the White House environmental advisor, all of them are important to consider. "On the per capita approach, that's still an item in discussion. From the U.S. perspective, all of these metrics matter," he said in a press conference call on April 18.
The important thing to remember, however, is that it makes no difference to the atmosphere whether emissions come from countries with high per capita emissions rates or low ones, or whether diplomats hurl silly names at one another. The warming effect will still be the same, and the Maldives will still be swimming.
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