COP19 Summit: Still Rich v. Poor

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

A few weeks ago, representatives from the “international community” met in Warsaw, Poland, to negotiate an agreement to tackle human-made climate change and its consequences for the world.

The outcome wasn’t as embarrassing as the failure four years ago in Copenhagen, but we’re still far from seeing any serious concerted action to keep climate change at a manageable level.

Expert on climate politics Oliver Geden contends that the goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius has become virtually impossible after these negotiations. The COP19 summit in Warsaw was supposed to lay the basis for an international treaty for the next summit in Paris   in 2015, but the agreements so far are much too weak to add up to a meaningful treaty by then.

There are two major issues that dominated the negotiations and inhibit meaningful progress.

First of all, there is the divide between developed and developing countries. Industrialized countries argue that the annual emissions of developing countries have by now caught up, so it’s time for them to take responsibility as well.

John Kerry, for example, exercises this strategy when he tries to put the U.S. and China on the same level, since as the world’s leading polluters the two countries “have a special role.” Together, he said, “we account for more than 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.”

To rich countries, it’s obvious that the U.S. (0.3 billion more or less rich citizens) and the EU (0.5 billion more or less rich citizens) should have the right to withhold meaningful measures until China (1.3 billion mouths to feed) and India (1.2 billion mouths to feed) take action to curb their own emissions. draws on figures from the World Resource Institute and uncovers the deep flaws in this prescription of responsibility:

In terms of historical emissions, industrialized countries account for roughly 80% of the carbon dioxide buildup in the atmosphere to date. Since 1950, the U.S. has emitted a cumulative total of roughly 50.7 billion tons of carbon, while China (4.6 times more populous) and India (3.5 times more populous) have emitted only 15.7 and 4.2 billion tons respectively (although their numbers will rise).

Annually, more than 60 percent of global industrial carbon dioxide emissions originate in industrialized countries, where only about 20 percent of the world’s population resides.

Much of the growth in emissions in developing countries results from the provision of basic human needs for growing populations, while emissions in industrialized countries contribute to growth in a standard of living that is already far above that of the average person worldwide.

But China and India share part of the guilt as well. For Oliver Geden, the cynical winners of the negotiations are the U.S., India, and China all together. They successfully implemented “bottom-up”-logic, where every state decides for itself how much it wants to reduce emissions, a logic that will inhibit meaningful change. And one mustn’t forget the negative role Japan, Australia, and Canada have played by backtracking on their commitments.

The EU, in contrast, advocated a “top-down”-regime, where the binding minimal contributions must follow the fixed goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius.

The second conflict persists between the rich nations and those poor and least developed countries that are most negative affected by climate change.

Some poor countries demand compensation and liability for the “loss and damage” inflicted on them through climate change and thus indirectly by industrialized countries.

A secret memo for U.S. diplomats shows that the U.S. is very concerned about the issue and prepared to counter these claims. What an outrageous idea that the people who are responsible for a problem and who built their wealth by causing it should be made responsible for it!

Bargains over this idea proceeded until the very end of the negotiations, until finally a watered down compromise was reached. The industrialized nations prevented any wording that could leave them open to compensation claims.

Yet, René Orellana of the Bolivian delegation said about the compromise: “It’s important that the loss and damage structure has finally been created. There’s a baby now, and we have to give him enough time to grow.”

The next meeting is in 2015, when a new treaty to follow Kyoto may finally be reached. But as the recent negation show, the foundation for the new agreement will be wobbly to say the least.

The outcome of COP19 is embarrassing for both the developing nations who are unwilling to take decisive steps as their global role grows, and (even more so) for the industrialized rich nations who have resisted meaningful steps for even longer. As usual, they lacked the courage to act on their historic responsibility for the problem by investing a small part of their enormous wealth to lead by example.

Moritz Laurer is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.