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“Skip the age of fossil fuels”

by D+C | E+Z
The future of humankind will be decided on in Bali in December, at the 13th Conference of Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Its outcome will determine the future course of global policymaking on energy and climate. At stake is whether the average rise in global temperature will be limited to two degrees, as scientists say is necessary. Hermann E. Ott, a policy expert with the Wuppertal Institute, elaborates on the Bali agenda. [ Interview with Hermann E. Ott ]

What is the minimum the climate conference must deliver in December?
Many people think it is already about deciding on the follow-up agreement to the Kyoto Protocol. But we are not yet at that point. Before adopting a Kyoto2 agreement, a complex negotiating process needs to be set in motion. The most important goal is that Bali must produce a strong negotiating mandate to conclude a post-Kyoto agreement by the end of 2009 at the latest. Moreover, the mandate must spell out that four aspects are imperative:
– The industrialised countries must commit to much stricter curbs on greenhouse-gas emissions than they have so far;
– the emerging fast-growing economies must also agree to some kind of emission limits;
– the rich countries must provide technology and funds to help the emerging economies cut emissions; and
– the poor countries will need substantial support to adapt to climate change.

You say emerging nations should agree to reduction targets, on the one hand, but will receive support to meet them, on the other. Under that regime, would China, for example, be a net payer or a net recipient?

The support will certainly exceed the costs. There is a growing awareness of the fact that the most advanced nations will need to help all others meet emission-reduction targets. The rich world must provide most of the money needed to make climate protection possible. International environment policy has taken a similar approach before, in the context of the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer. The rich countries transferred some $ 2 billion to developing countries for 5,000 projects over the fairly short period of 15 years in order to eliminate the use of ozone-destroying substances. This time, however, we are looking at much greater sums. The amount needed is likely to be at least a hundred times greater.

So the OECD nations would spend at least $ 200 billion only on reducing greenhouse gases, thus enabling China and India to meet their targets.

That’s right. At least $ 200 billion will probably be needed to meet the basic costs of creating a non-fossil, renewable energy supply system. As far as wind power is concerned, the countries you mentioned have already made considerable progress. However, problems arise because their energy requirements are growing very fast, and they do not have the money to fund a subsidy system of the kind we have in Germany, where the utilities must spend extra money for feeding electricity from renewable sources into the grid. If we want to radically boost the role renewable options play, the rich countries could pay for subsidising renewable sources in other countries, for example.

It is reckoned that poor countries will require at least another $ 500 billion over the next decade for adaptation measures. Don’t these sums go beyond the industrialised nations’ ability to pay, or at least their willingness to foot the bill?

The sums do look huge, but compared to global economic output, which is mostly generated by the rich countries, they are not really that big at all. And we are not talking about charity; these investments will drive the world economy. Let me put the figures into perspective: It is assumed that $ 16 trillion will be invested in the power sector until 2030 to replace existing facilities and to cover growing demand.

Public diplomacy largely seems at a standstill so far. US officials reiterate there is no point in negotiating reduction targets unless rising giants like India and China submit to them too. Governments from emerging-market nations, however, say they cannot afford to meet such targets because of the widespread poverty among their peoples. Has professional debate actually progressed at all?

The Americans’ arguments are threadbare; and they have always only served as a pretext – and obviously so. Exxon, the oil group with a marked influence on US policymaking, has been playing the same game. On the one hand, it was argued at home that reduction targets for the United States were unfair as long as India and China were exempt. The big developing countries, it was said, should also do their bit. In Asia, on the other hand, Americans stated that poor economies cannot be expected to reduce emissions before industrialised countries set an example. That double act served to forestall any serious climate debate in the United States. But it no longer works. Even in the USA, climate awareness and political pressure have increased. President George Bush has a lot of other problems; he can no longer turn a deaf ear to climate issues. At present, he is trying to keep the fire small and create the impression that he is taking action. What we need now is the skill of a judo fighter, exploiting the momentum of such defensive moves and using it in support of pro-Bali dynamism. It may then become possible to urge the US Administration into a position where it will no longer stand in the way of progress.

So the United States is not the big stonewalling power that will block the climate conference in Bali?

Within the G20 – the group of the world’s 20 biggest energy consumers and, accordingly, the world’s worst climate disrupters – the Americans are clearly trying to look as constructive as possible at the moment. The head of Washington’s negotiating team, for example, explicitly speaks of 2009 as the target date and the need for Bali to succeed. Since the G8 summit at Heiligendamm, things have gained momentum. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel really worked a bit of magic there – and all summit participants gave their word. In the US, the Republicans’ prospects in the next elections will clearly suffer if they are seen to be applying the brake on climate matters. I’m not saying they are eagerly playing along, though. For the USA to become a driving force, a new president will be necessary.

Chancellor Merkel is playing a positive role. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s Foreign Minister, is also travelling the globe and talking about the climate. Three years ago, at the renewables2004 conference in Bonn, it seemed that making energy supply sustainable was more a concern for the ministers in charge of development and environment, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul and Jürgen Trittin. Is the new commitment of cabinet heavyweights credible?

It certainly is. Even back at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, Germany took a progressive stand on climate issues. And nothing has happened since to change that. I am not saying that the various German governments got everything right – but they always looked good compared to the governments of other countries. According to an old German saying, the one-eyed always leads the blind. What is new, however, is that Chancellor Merkel has made climate protection and energy top issues. She has put climate and environment at the centre of the political stage. These matters are no longer relegated to the sidelines, no longer considered soft “feel-good” issues. Let’s not forget that, on the campaign trail to national elections in 2005, climate did not yet figure prominently. Today, however, the chancellor is often passing the ball on to Sigmar Gabriel, the environment minister, in quite promising ways. In Japan, for example, Merkel recently expressed herself in favour of a global approach based on per-capita emission levels. That is a far cry from the conventional geostrategic thinking that defined German foreign policy in the past.

But is the per-capita principle really good enough? Doesn’t it ignore the historical debt of the industrialised countries? They have, after all, caused the changes in the global climate. History did not all start with the reduction targets of the Kyoto Protocol, which only the Germans and the British have come close to meeting.

That’s right. The poor countries ought to be granted a period of grace in which they are allowed higher per-capita emissions. On the other hand, the scales of historical justice can also be balanced if the rich help the poor to observe a global per-capita standard as well as to cope with the consequences of the changes already under way. Under unequal conditions, equal treatment is not necessarily fair; rather, it may breed new inequality and injustice. If justice is to prevail, the disadvantaged must sometimes be given preferential treatment.

To return to my first question, what would be the best possible outcome in Bali?

Working groups need to be swiftly formed to address the issues of tougher targets for rich countries, the introduction and financing of reduction targets for emerging nations, and the adaptation to climate change. Diplomatic wrangling takes time, and the problems are really very complex and intricate. But they are pressing too. Climate change will not wait for humankind. We will need six to eight international conferences, each devoting a couple of weeks to the search for acceptable formulas. There is no other way to get to grips with this complicated issue. However, it may so happen that the working groups are not formed with the necessary authority to decide. In that case, negotiations would need to continue in the existing forums. That would be very complicated, but not impossible. A clear mandate, clear objectives and a clear roadmap are what we need first of all, however.

What kind of working groups would you like to see formed?

What matters is that all parties to the convention are involved in every negotiation topic. The first topic is reduction targets – not just in the sense of stricter regimes for the industrialised countries. We also need special rules for the emerging-market countries. The latter could perhaps relate to specific economic sectors in each country, such as energy-intensive industries like steel or chemicals. What we definitely need, however, are commitments to raise energy efficiency and boost renewable sources by a certain date. The second topic that all parties to the convention must tackle is adaptation. Here, the focus would be on issues such as: What can vulnerable countries do to protect themselves against the negative impacts of climate change? What kind of support can the industrialised countries give? Third, the topic of how to promote technological development deserves the attention of all parties. So far, there is too little cooperation on developing and spreading appropriate technologies. Finally, we need a working group to discuss the financial commitments of industrialised countries – and it must not be about peanuts.

What role will nuclear power play? International interest in this technology seems to be rising again.

Well yes, but its importance should not be exaggerated. There is a great deal of rhetoric. Only around 30 nuclear power plants are being planned or under construction worldwide. And many of the projects are already 20 years old. Nuclear power is really only expanding at a very slow pace – not least because everyone knows that it is not the solution to pressing problems. Uranium resources, after all, are finite and will be exhausted very soon. Some governments are pushing for a nuclear future – China and India in Asia, the British and French in Europe. A few more nuclear plants will certainly be built. But in truth, these projects are only rearguard actions. Opposition to nuclear technology is strong. For example, it will prevent emission-reduction certificates being granted for the construction of nuclear power stations. That is what really matters.

In which settings will climate diplomats operate if the working groups you propose are not formed straight away?

Since the COP in Montreal two years ago, there has been a so-called “dialogue”, which is about winning over the countries that did not sign the Kyoto Protocol. In the context of the Kyoto Protocol, on the other hand, there are two forums for discussion and negotiation:
– the AWG, the Ad hoc Working Group for Article 3.9., deals with the deepening of obligations for industrialised countries that ratified the Kyoto Protocol, and
– the Review Procedure according to Article 9 is evaluating the results of the Kyoto Protocol.
Review procedures are a common mechanism used in the diplomatic processes to ensure dynamism. In our case, of course, a crucial question is what emerging economies and developing countries must do for climate protection to succeed....

...because it is generally understood that the industrialised countries cannot solve the problem alone.

Exactly. I have a friend from Bangladesh who likes to point out that even if all the developing countries – three quarters of the human race, in other words – were to vanish at a stroke, the rest would not live in a sustainable manner. And it is true: the quarter of humanity that lives in the industrialised world is over-exploiting Earth’s resources. My reply, however, is that the same would hold true if the roles were reversed: if the industrialised countries disappeared overnight and the developing countries were left alone, their life would also be unsustainable. They are also over-exploiting the ecosystems, and would actually need two Earths all to themselves. We must bear that in mind, without denying the industrial countries’ responsibilities. Rich nations need to come up with ideas and money, technology and finance, to make sure that other economies will skip the age of fossil fuels.

For that to happen, Western Europe, North America and Japan need to act first and set a good example.

That is vital. Otherwise, the necessary technologies will not be developed in the first place. What is more, the rich world would totally lose credibility. That was evident for years in the field of solar power. In developing countries, people kept asking: If it is such a great thing to do, why don’t you do it? If you want us to buy that technology, why don’t you use it yourselves? In the case of wind power, the roles are now being reversed. An Indian manufacturer is currently in the process of acquiring a controlling stake in the third-largest German wind-power company, Re-Power AG. That is the reality of the 21st century, and it happened because the Indian government started subsidising wind power early on. With decisive steps taken in the emerging economies now, many of their green industries could gain a similar advantage and be very competitive on the world’s markets in about ten years from now. The crucial point is whether they bet on old fossil technologies or on the new solar economy.

Questions by Hans Dembowski.