Copenhagen fatigue

Chinese smog (NASA)

Put it down to “Copenhagen fatigue” as the hype levels reach mind-numbing proportions ahead of next month’s big climate summit, but some of the headlines of the last two days might give the impression that the US and China have finally put in place firm carbon emissions-cutting commitments that will allow the world to reach a deal in Denmark.

On Friday, it was the turn of the Chinese to capture front pages. In the US, the New York Times had “China joins US in pledge of hard targets on emissions“, while the Los Angeles Times went with “China vows to cut greenhouse gas emissions 40% by 2020“.

China’s commitment is neither a hard target nor has it agreed to cut emissions. Rather, the Chinese pledge is an aim to cut energy intensity by between 40% and 45% by 2020 compared to the 2005 level, where energy intensity is measured as the unit of energy required to produce a unit of GDP. That announcement is not just a diplomatic sop aimed at appeasing doubters over China’s commitment to act on climate change, as the South China Morning Post argues (subscription required). Nonetheless, it is best described as an aspiration, and not even a new one; also, it is something which is a fruit of development rather than specifically aimed at cutting emissions. Countries get less energy-intense naturally as heavy industry becomes a smaller proportion of economic growth.

China has made great strides in energy efficiency over the last couple of decades, but progress has been patchy and it gets more difficult as development progresses. The graph below comes from a blog in September by Roger Pielke, an environmental studies professor at University of Colorado, and maps recent Chinese progress. It shows that China should already have achieved half the goal it has pledged – under its 2005-2010 plan it aimed to cut energy intensity by 20%. However, it had only managed to cut by 7.4% through 2008. To achieve its new aim by 2020 will require feats that are well beyond anything that has been demonstrated hitherto.

In any case, as a Reuters story points out, how will we know? The measuring and verifying process for carbon emissions makes nuclear weapons verification look like small  beans.

The headlines are being generated, of course, to soften the fact that Copenhagen will fail to create a new convention to supplant the Kyoto protocol, something that will have to wait until next year at the earliest. (see Copenhagen countdown subscription required).

The pledge from President Obama, such as it is (cuts of “around 17%” from 2005 levels by 2020), also is only an aspiration until it can be ratified in Congress next year. As The Economist magazine points out:

“The promised target is no different than that already passed by the House of Representatives, and considerably lower than what other rich countries (especially in Europe) have promised.”

It has also been noticed that Mr Obama’s visit to Copenhagen is a somewhat half-hearted affair, timed to coincide with his trip to Oslo to collect the Noble Peace Prize and coming early on in proceedings—the opening day—”well before the crunch time near the end” (see It’s off to Denmark we go subscription required).

Andrew Mitchell, the UK’s shadow development secretary, sees the “litmus test” of success as the world’s ability to keep global warming to two degrees. Worryingly as The Independent pointed out earlier this month, scientists are already planning for worse. Mitchell added that if the “deal on the table doesn’t look like it is going to do this, then the British delegation must have the nerve to reject the usual back-slapping and face-saving statements”. With delegates already managing expectations such a stand is likely to prove fruitless.

Yvo de Boer, the UN’s climate change head, has also been managing expectations this week. On Wednesday, at a pre-summit press conference, he talked of four elements of success at Copenhagen, starting with firm emissions-cutting commitments from developed countries, especially the US. The other aims about helping the developing countries to fund their plans for curbing emissions growth are contingent on the first, which won’t happen. So, he said, look out for a deal in Copenhagen to allow the Kyoto protocol to continue after it expires in 2012; but whatever the headlines, such a small achievement shouldn’t be confused with a meaningful replacement for Kyoto that would bring in countries accounting for more than two-thirds of the world’s CO2 emissions.

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