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The simple-minded politics of international action on climate

By Nicholas Gruen - posted Friday, 23 December 2005


At the end of each year, like migratory birds, the world’s international greenhouse diplomats - over 10,000 of them - hear a mysterious call. And each year the tell-tale trails of greenhouse gas seem to stretch yet further across the sky as planes descend on another exotic location. And another Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) takes place.

This year the 11th COP took place in Montreal, French Quebec from November 28 to December 9.

The third of these migrations (COP3) occurred in Kyoto in 1997 producing the eponymous Protocol in which developed countries took on binding emission reduction targets. But Kyoto has its problems.

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The developing countries never took on binding commitments, and their economies and their emissions keep growing like topsy. And the United States and Australia formed their very own Coalition of the Unwilling alone in their refusal to ratify Kyoto.

Before Montreal our Environment Minister Ian Campbell had been gloating that Kyoto’s targets were “just about finished". But the migrating diplomats have just managed to stitch things back together again - a little.

Montreal tidied up the administration of the “clean development mechanism”. That will allow developed countries to earn credit by funding emissions abatement in developing countries. It reaffirmed Kyoto by agreeing to negotiate new post-Kyoto targets. And it OK’d the entrapment of greenhouse gases within the earth - a means by which Australia hopes to preserve the value of its prodigious coal and gas reserves.

But the major flaws remain intact. As the polar icecaps receded further, as the gulf stream that keeps Europe warm seemed to be slowing and as scientific evidence continued to marginalise the greenhouse denialists, the politics of international action remained mired in simple-mindedness.

The Coalition of the Unwilling are clearly rogues in this story. Trouble is, there aren't many good guys. The environmentalists have the Europeans and the developing countries playing the good guys. Let's take them in turn.

For years the Europeans frustrated the emergence of a sensible protocol. They were aghast at the idea of letting each country achieve their allocated target in whatever way they wished (including by teaming up with other countries and trading entitlements to pick all the least cost abatement options). They agreed to Russia being bribed into the Protocol with “hot air” or excess emissions entitlements, but then sought to undermine the value of these entitlements by opposing their sale to other countries.

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Branding emissions trading a “loophole” they wanted us all to adopt “government knows best” approaches like them - mandatory targets for recycling, renewables, fuel economy you name it. This wouldn’t have reduced emissions - as they’d already been agreed under Kyoto. They just wanted Kyoto to be character building - by changing our lifestyle.

Oh - but there was one exception. European countries formed a club - which they called a “bubble” and guess what? They were allowed to trade emissions, within the bubble - and they could buy East Germany’s “hot air”! It took years to get the Europeans to agree to extend these privileges to other developed countries. Similar diversions await the renegotiation of post-Kyoto targets.

Then there are the developing countries. As the then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said three years ago:

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First published in The Courier-Mail on December 15, 2005.



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About the Author

Dr Nicholas Gruen is CEO of Lateral Economics and Chairman of Peach Refund Mortgage Broker. He is working on a book entitled Reimagining Economic Reform.

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