Saturday, November 28, 2009

Copenhagen and Climate Change

The White House has released a joint statement in the aftermath of Manmohan Singh's visit. On the subject of climate change, the agreement promises a program to advance clean energy to counter climate change.

This statement follows direct negotiations with China, and is accompanied by announcements of US cuts "in the range of 17 percent below 2005 levels in 2020 and ultimately in line with final U.S. energy and climate legislation." These negotiations have raised the possibility of a meaningful deal at Copenhagen.

Not so fast. There is much less progress on contentious issues than meets the eye.

First, the House, but not the Senate, has signed off on those emissions cuts--which are in any case half-achieved due to ongoing economic troubles. Thus Obama will address a global audience asking them to trust that he can get the Senate to sign off, despite no evidence that it will do so.

Second, Chinese commitments are themselves weak. China has pledged to reduce only the intensity of its emissions in the long-run, safely after the tenure of current political leadership. Plainly China has demonstrated that it will not sacrifice its growth trajectory unless greater financial inducements are on the table.

Finally, the list of goodies offered by America are rather weak. A number of US-India partnerships on clean energy have been offered, but it is unlikely that their aggregate impact will be large. To meet India's energy needs, wind and solar are not enough.

For signs of a more proactive approach, one need look only as far as George Bush. The Indian-US Nuclear Deal has the potential to generate 470 GW of electricity by 2050. Construction of foreign-aided nuclear plants is well under way. These efforts will likely dwarf anything Obama achieves on climate change in India.

In fact, the probability of a meaningful deal at Copenhagen is minimal. In all likelihood, failure to reach a deal will cause a number of climate-related problems. Yet the best solution to these problems is not to further go down the rabbit hole of global negotiations; but to increase economic growth. Wealth and technology are the best weapons to fight unanticipated changes in the climate, as richer countries are better able to mitigate and adapt to any possible changes. For instance, the Maldives are currently under threat of going underwater, yet the country could easily meet the cost of building levies if it were a rich country (as the Netherlands does with its sea wall, for instance). Whatever the consequences of climate change, a wealthy India will be able to bear them. A poor India will face serious problems regardless of the state of global coordination.

In this respect, costly negotiations that involve expensive subsidies or onerous environmental regulations may do more harm than good. Indur Goklani has an analysis which makes this point clearly. He estimates the GDP per capita in 2100 of developing countries under energy-intensive development--$72,800--and under a more environmentally friendly regime--$40,200. For the next hundred years, at least, countries like India are far better off with high economic development and more climate change than without. Pranab Mukherjee, not Jairam Ramesh, will have the biggest impact on India's sensitivity to climate change in the long-run.

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