Watching Through the Haze of Greenhouse Gas
Michael Richardson (Visiting Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore)
Climate change was a hot topic in the statements by the Group of Eight powers at the end of their meeting in Gleneagles, Scotland, last week. One of their main concerns is how to bring developing nations, led by fast-growing energy consumers China and India, into any future framework to limit carbon dioxide and other emissions blamed for heating the planet.
After discussions with their counterparts from China, India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa, the G8 leaders said they would pursue a new dialogue with developing countries on climate change, starting in November - when parties to the Kyoto Protocol meet in Montreal, Canada.
China is now the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases after the United States. It is responsible for about 15 per cent of the emissions that trap heat in the atmosphere, barely 6 per cent less than the US level and a fraction more than the European Union at 14 per cent. Many scientists now warn that climate change resulting from accumulating global emissions will disrupt nature, melt the polar caps and mountain glaciers, raise sea levels and intensify extreme weather events like storms, floods, droughts and fires, causing widespread damage and economic disruption.
The International Energy Agency (IEA), in its latest World Energy Outlook report, forecasts that on present trends global emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, will increase by 1.7 per cent per year between 2002 and 2030. They will reach 38 billion tonnes in 2030, a rise of 15 billion tonnes, or 62 per cent, over the 2002 level.
About 70 per cent of this increase will come from developing countries as their industrial economies expand, cities grow and demand for electricity and modern transport rises. The IEA says that the developing countries will overtake the 30 industrialised nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, as the leading contributor to global-energy-related carbon-dioxide emissions, early in the 2020s. China's emissions alone will climb by more than 3.8 billion tonnes, equal to more than a quarter of the increase in world emissions.
The IEA says other Asian countries, notably India, will also contribute in a big way to the rise in global emissions.
Yet China, India and other developing countries are excluded from the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol to limit greenhouse gases, which runs until 2012. Only industrialised economies are covered by the initial phase of this treaty, which went into force in February. Under it, rich nations are obliged to reduce their overall gas emissions by at least 5 per cent below their 1990 levels, on average. All G8 members except the US have signed the 1997 protocol.
The mainland is a far less efficient energy user than Japan or even the US. But as it struggles to overcome shortages of electricity and declining domestic oil output, Beijing is wary of committing itself to make big cuts in its greenhouse gas emissions - because that would almost certainly mean sharply curbing future economic growth, based on the large-scale use of coal, oil and natural gas.
So Beijing will see how other countries move to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions before deciding whether to implement its own action plan.
Only 21 countries account for 80 per cent of worldwide warming emissions. It should therefore be possible to strike a reasonably equitable bargain among such a relatively small group.
But if any one of the big polluters refuses, no effective deal will emerge and the global climate will continue to heat up in increasingly dangerous ways.
(Originally appeared in the July 15, 2005 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)