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Poorer Nations Could Sway Climate Talks

By Frank-Jürgen Richter

Business Times, December 3, 2015

Arguments promoted by an alliance of these climatically warmer developing countries might derail COP 21.

Paris has braced itself to accommodate ministers, advisers, journalists and protesters to the UN climate change meeting, COP 21 (Committee of All Parties), which has 137 confirmed attendees by heads of state on the first day. Then it will be up to other conference delegates to wrangle an agreement which many hope will be the “Kyoto II”.

Of course Paris and the French government have been planning this meeting for some years as they have to cater for 40,000 people, including 3,000 journalists. Many issues have to be managed on a massive scale – communications, transport, accommodation, food and more. Plus delegates need to be protected from the expected 200,000 protesters – although their planned rally has been cancelled due to the heightened security against terrorist attacks. Finally, all 195 nations of the United Nations are expected to sign the convention, typically by their heads of government.

Earlier, I had thought COP 21 might be a “done deal” as the world’s biggest climate polluters in absolute terms – China and the US – had agreed a timetable of mitigation. When US President Barack Obama met Chinese President Xi Jinping in China last November they agreed the US would reduce emissions by some 28 per cent by 2025, and China to peak emissions by 2030 or before. They reaffirmed their commitments when Mr Xi visited the US in September 2015. Other nations were expected to follow their lead.

At Paris, besides the main conference, there will be hundreds of break-out meetings where officials will try to clarify various issues. Most agree that climate change is an urgent problem, but there are still some sceptics. Nations will try to win concessions on the depth and timing of changes they must make to keep the global temperature rise to two degrees Celsius.

We all appreciate that hot weather makes us uncomfortable. Some economists think that rich countries with their air conditioning might not suffer as much as poor, technology-light nations. But it turns out that the story is not so simple. Much depends on whether one’s location has an average temperature above or below the global average.

In a recent academic paper, professors Marshall Burke, Solomon Hsiang and Edward Miguel of the University of California at Berkeley note that countries with generally cooler weather than the global average, as in northern Europe, have achieved higher than average economic growth when their temperatures were warmer than average. They say that cold northern nations will grow in GDP (gross domestic product) terms and hotter ones will falter. Their findings are substantiated to 2100 (the end of the COP 21 planning horizon).

There are many ramifications to these findings and all will be aired in Paris. Convoluted discussions will be held between those who understand the science and those not so well informed.

Over recent years the UN/IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has presented many scenarios describing the effects of increasing global temperatures, and how individuals might respond. We have a limited natural control over our bodies, and we cannot control the effect of the weather which is predicted to become more extreme. Richer northern climes might have to cope with ever more economic migrants from hotter areas where it just does not make economic sense to battle against nature. There will come a time when local mitigation costs become prohibitive and migration is the best option.

Interestingly the same academics note other effects of climatic stress – that is warmer temperatures or more extreme rainfall increases social tensions and conflicts. These will cut into everyone’s profits but the results fall asymmetrically upon the poor, making them poorer. These poor will wish to migrate.

The perception of a nation being rich will be an attractor to a poor person, so migrating to the US, Europe or China will become a goal. We will hear in COP 21the US and Europe described by developing nations as historically polluting nations and these richer nations should now do their utmost to give even greater economic support to developing nations. This will leave China on the fence – perceived as a rich nation and a migration target, while its negotiators will attempt to derive benefits accruing to a developing nation.

An accepted precondition for economic growth is having sufficient energy. The Philippines wishes to install 24 new coal-fired power stations – they need more electricity 24/7 to boost their economy and they know that wind and solar energy have technological drawbacks even though they are non-polluting.

These new power stations, even into the future, are unlikely to capture much of the green-house gas and carbon dioxide, as the sequestration technology is unproven at scale. Ironically the Philippines will contribute further to the global temperature rise: Yet, as they are in a “hot” geographic location, their future economic condition is predicted to worsen long term even with a greater supply of electrical energy.

A similar issue arises in Bangladesh. They have installed a large base of solar panels, greatly improving rural life and productivity. But again, to guarantee electricity supplies 24/7 they are installing new coal-fired generators. India too, soon to become the world’s most populous nation, will demand at COP 21 that it be allowed to further develop its coal-fired electricity generation so that it may continue to develop economically. These nations might argue for their short-term solution in COP 21, but what would be the long-term impact?

While the world’s two largest polluters, the US and China, are in the colder northern regions and according to the academics will grow strongly into the future, what might derail COP 21 may be arguments promoted by an alliance of climatically warmer and economically poorer developing nations.

The writer is founder and chairman of Horasis, a global visions community.