George Bush and China focus on "carbon intensity", not global warming

“I cannot negotiate on the two degrees,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel, currently president of both the European Union and the G8 summit of the major industrialized nations that started in Heiligendamm on June 6. Her goal was to get the world’s biggest producers of greenhouse gases to agree to emissions cuts deep enough to limit global heating to two degrees Celsius by the end of this century, but that isn’t going to happen this year.

In order to meet that target, Merkel wanted countries to commit to a 50-percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050, compared with the base-line figure for 1990, but U.S. diplomats have already deleted both the two-degree limit and the 50-percent cut from the draft summit declaration sent to them by Merkel.

“There is only so far we can go,” they explained.

As for China, which may overtake the United States as the world’s biggest polluter this year, a draft copy of a national global-warming assessment leaked in mid-April stated that “before general accomplishment of modernisation by the middle of the 21st century, China should not undertake absolute and compulsory emission reduction obligations.” Like the U.S. government, the Chinese regime is starting to admit that climate change is serious, but it is against any preventive measures that might impair economic growth.

China is not a member of the G8 but it already has the fourth-biggest economy in the world, and by the 2020s it will probably have the second-biggest. Like the Bush administration in the United States, the Chinese regime prefers to talk about cuts in “carbon intensity”, or the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of national income. This is simply an elegant way of dodging the issue.

Thus, China proposes to cut “carbon intensity” 40 percent by 2020. If Chinese economic growth continues to be about 10 percent a year, that means that actual carbon emissions in China will more than double by then. And the Bush administration’s promise to reduce “carbon intensity” by 18 percent by 2012, assuming three- ­and-a-half percent annual growth in the U.S. economy, means no net cut in total U.S. emissions.

It’s not surprising that rapidly industrializing countries like China, India, Brazil, and Mexico are reluctant to accept formal limits on their emissions. After generations of poverty, they can at last see prosperity on the horizon, and they are terrified of doing anything that might damage their current high growth rates. But the stance of some rich countries on climate change is harder to explain.

The United States and Australia have long been the principal delinquents, but Japan, a Kyoto signatory whose own emissions are under control, is now the Bush administration’s main instrument for sabotaging the Kyoto Accord. Although most other members want to agree by next year on a new treaty to replace the accord when it expires in 2012, Japan is insisting that nothing more must be done until big polluters like the U.S., China, and India are brought into the system.

If we had world enough and time, it would make sense to wait for everybody to climb on board, but time is not on our side. Merkel’s target of no more than two degrees hotter by century’s end is already dangerously high, since that would mean falls of 12 percent to 25 percent in food production in most of the main food-producing areas of the world. There is not enough

reserve food production available in the world to cover that shortfall: millions of people would starve.

Stopping at two degrees hotter means stopping at between 450 and 550 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, depending on whose figures you believe. We are already at 385 ppm, and we are now going up at four ppm per year, so deep cuts in current emissions are needed very soon.

Assume that the next U.S. administration will join the Europeans in adopting serious emissions-reduction targets (as a number of U.S. states are already doing). Is there any point in a post–Kyoto Accord if the newly industrializing countries are still not part of it?

The emerging economies must eventually be part of a global emissions-reduction system, but it will not happen until the rich countries have already accepted deep cuts. The developing countries are keenly aware that almost all of the current problem is the fault of the old rich countries, which have been emitting large and growing amounts of greenhouse gases for 200 years. So they are the countries that have to make the really deep cuts now.

A prediction. In the end, we are going to have the same per-capita emissions quota no matter where we live: Americans who currently put 20 tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere each year, Germans who now emit 10 tonnes per capita, and Indians who only produce one tonne at present.

The compromise figure will be around two or three tonnes per capita for every country, and the rich countries will have to struggle very hard to get their emissions down while the developing countries will still have some room to grow. No other global deal is conceivable. So the rich countries might as well sign a new Kyoto and get on with cutting their emissions; they have a long way to go.

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