Skip to Content

Editorial: Copenhagen: another predictable failure

The most recent IPCC’s (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) findings say that rich, industrial countries must cut emissions from 1990 levels by 25-40 percent by 2020 if the world is to have a fair chance of avoiding dangerous climate change.

In July the G-8 leaders agreed to limit the global temperature rise to 2 degrees C above the pre-industrial level at which human civilisation developed.Pre-Copenhagen the EU has pledged 20 percent cuts by 2020, but will increase this to 30 percent if others – like the US – do likewise. Japan has pledged 25 percent reductions by 2020 if others will do the same. Chinese president Hu pledged to cut emissions ‘by a notable margin’ by 2020. The US has given no assurances but a bill Obama has said he supports (the Waxman-Markey bill) would give less than 5 percent reductions by 2020.

Also in July, the findings of a newly completed study by WBGU (a German acronym) – the chairman of  which, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, is chief climate adviser to the German government – were given for the first time to an invitation-only conference in the Santa Fe Institute, New Mexico. The study has since been published. This WBGU study says the US must stop all CO2 emissions by 2020; Germany,Italy and other industrial nations by 2025-30 and China by 2035, with the whole world needing to be carbonemissions- free by 2050. The study would allow the big polluters to delay their slowdown by buying emissions rights from developing countries, enabling possible extension times of around a decade for some. A fundamental principle of the study is the ‘per capita principle’, meaning that the right to emit greenhouse gases is shared equally by all people on Earth. Applied to a world population of seven billion, each person on earth would have a quota of 2.7 tons of CO2, whereas currently US citizens emit 20 tons per capita.

Schellnhuber claims that meeting these criteria will give humanity a two in-three chance of staying within that 2 degrees C limit – although there is no guarantee. To increase the odds in favour carbon emissions would have to end sooner; delaying another decade or so before halting all emissions would reduce the odds to fifty-fifty. Odds are that whatever is promoted at Copenhagen there will be much jockeying and positioning, many fine words and ifs and buts by selfimportant world leaders and another decade down the ever-more polluted and climate change-affected road we’ll look back and see another abject failure – just like Rio, Kyoto, Johannesburg, etc. ad infinitum. What more can we expect from a system which makes a habit of fouling its own and everybody else’s backyard as long as it’s making money by blind pursuit of growth? Come 2020 the King Canutes of capitalism will still be trying to hold back the waves with empty gestures.