One Finite Planet

COP27: Climate change action sabotage?

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Reports from COP27 seems indicate the key initiative this year to make wealthy nations cover the cost of the damages poor nations will incur as a result of emissions that have main originated from those wealthy nations.

The proposal as it stands has a missing an essential piece, and trying to cover for that essential piece, appears most to likely to increase emissions, and move COP away from a focus on solving the climate crisis and instead toward just fighting over the cost.

This is a troubled look at the key flaw in what has been put forward and the real solution that should be in place.

Another failed COP?

The much-heralded COP26 many to secure commitments from many nations to commit to net zero by 2050, in a last-ditch attempt to avoid reaching +1.5°C in 2026. While two of the projected largest emitters of CO2 in that period, China and India, only committed to net zero by 2060 and 2070 respectively, that may not make any different to the date at which +1.5°C is reached.

While it is true that my prediction of +1.5°C by 2026 is not universally accepted as inevitable, at least the World Meteorological Organization report suggests a 50% chance this will happen. Given is seen as somewhat likely that extra around 0.25°C required to reach +1.5°C is rated a 50% to happen within 5 years, the idea that target not reached in 25 years will make much difference seems at best naïve.

So, what does COP27 bring?

A proposal that “Rich countries ‘must make climate change reparations right now’“. The proposal has some potentially good points, and a fund does have merit, but without first solving the ignoring offshored emissions,

The biggest risk is that it could take the focus away from battling climate change and move to a robin hood style ‘rob from the rich to give to the poor’.

The policy should be “big emitters countries must pay”, but that has been avoided it would seem, for political reasons. The biggest problem is that the entire initiative does not seem to focus on emissions reductions. As the graph at the top of this page shows, the biggest problem for the world is that making China the worlds’ factor has transferred emissions to China. One of the biggest steps now so many of the worlds’ emissions have been relocated to China, is to work together to enable that production to reduce emissions, but this challenge is ignored.

While I will highlight the dangers of the COP27 proposal below, I would expect that many of these dangers have been foreseen and there will be steps to try to avoid them, but as the public image of the schemes remains as is, this will be almost impossible. This plan as expressed, may even reduce the incentive for countries which are large emitters of CO2 to reduce their emissions.

The problem: “Rich Countries Must Pay” could increase emissions.

Why not “Big Emitters must pay” to punish those at fault?

While the rich paying the poor has the ‘Robin Hood’ appeal, is that really the role of COP summits? Making someone pay for damages caused by emissions is also just, but on that basis, shouldn’t it be “Big Emitters Must Pay”?

While rich countries may also be most of the big emitters, they are far from all equally big emitters, and by making the obligation linked to emissions rather than wealth, that would give government of rich nations a new message to climate deniers: “If we don’t reduce emissions, we will be liable for damages!”.

Imagine if instead of fines for speeding, all drivers of expensive fast cars were simply taxed because their cars were capable of speeding. The revenue raised could increase, but if anything, having paid the “my car can speed” tax, some drivers might feel that means to only way for that to be just as if they do at least sometimes drive faster than the speed limit.

Climate denier groups, and the lobbying and publicity departments of fossil fuel companies would have a new message “we pay, the reparations, we should not have to pay to reduce emissions as well!”.

The end result is that the policy could easily empower groups opposed to action on climate change, and as a result lead to an increase in global emissions.

The elephant in the room: China.

A challenge for a policy of ‘big emitters must pay”, is that 2 of the 3 biggest emitters globally are China and India. Neither China nor India is described as a “rich nation” so the language of “rich nations must pay” manages to avoid either needing to pay.

In fact, China is the number #1, biggest emitter, so any policy labeled as “big emitters must pay” could be seen as primary targeting China.

China and India have the biggest populations, which makes it unfair to consider total emissions as opposed to emissions per capita.

Interestingly, this report identifies New Zealand, Germany, Belgium, Denmark, and Scotland as the only countries having contributed to the fund so far, and they qualify as “rich countries”, but respectively their emissions per capita are 7.14, 9.44, 8.34, 6.65, and 5.55, and while China has emissions per capita of 7.38 and higher than New Zealand, Denmark and Scotland.

Once adjusted for population, India is a very low-level emitter, but while China is no longer even close to being the worst emitter per capita, China, on emissions per capita, still bongs ‘mid pack’ with the rich nations. So yes, elephant is China and not India.

Interestingly, the push for the climate fund and “rich nations must pay” started with pacific nations.

Over the past decade, the People’s Republic of China has become the leading trade and investment partner of the Pacific Island nations and a major provider of foreign assistance and loans, including through the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s global infrastructure development strategy, which now has projects in 10 countries in the region. On the diplomatic front, China has increased its footprint in regional organizations, stepped up high-level visits, increased the professional diplomatic staff at its embassies, and deepened law enforcement and security partnerships. The COVID-19 pandemic provided China an opportunity to build additional goodwill by donating vaccines and personal protective equipment and financing economic recovery efforts.

China’s Influence on the Freely Associated States of the Northern Pacific

China creates the biggest problem being able to have, “big emitter countries must pay”, but is that fair, or not?

In Defence of China: The problem of ‘Offshoring emissions’.

While diplomacy may have played a role in ensuring China avoids being in the ‘must pay’ category, there is some logic to why excluding China could become also the right policy for climate change, if it is done on the basis of ‘offshored emissions’.

Rich nations very often imply ‘offshore’ their ethical issues with production. In a rich nation, standards on workers conditions and pay, factory safety, and production emission and other pollution all apply. This raises the price of local production, which in some cases will make that product uncompetitive, eliminating all emissions from production in that industry.

The rich nation then imports products from whoever provides the best value products, which in the absence of campaigns to boycott products from specific countries, will be those products made without the standards and requirements made mandatory in the rich country.

The result is a very high ethical standards within the rich country, but sometimes at the expense of sponsoring which ever offshore supplier can produce cost effectively, potentially at the expense of those very standards.

Problems are ‘swept under the carpet’ by offshoring the problems. That is, the problems can remain, just provided they are not seen within the rich country.

As the offshore manufacturer for the globe, China is providing an offshore location for emissions from many rich countries.

If allowance is made for that fact that China is acting as the manufacturing hub for the globe, that would also very likely exempt China from the ‘big emitters’ group.

Further, if adjustments are made for the fact that many rich countries have simply offshored many industries that by nature create emissions and then import the products but not accountability for the emissions, a more realistic global picture of true emissions would be available.

Measuring something can be the first step to making improvements.

A Solution: Introduce ‘offshored’ emissions, pivot to emitters must pay.

Proposed Key points.

  1. Introduce accounting for ‘offshored emissions’.
  2. Rework the ‘Must Pay’ Policy from ‘Rich Nations’ to ‘Big Emitter Nations’.
  3. Consider a capability for enforcement, not retrospectively, but for the future.

Introduce accounting for ‘offshored emissions’ in ‘big emitter’ status.

The current ‘rich nations must pay’ scheme appears to be a scheme of trying to shame counties into donating to a fund. There is no clear rule as to who is ‘rich’ and who is ‘not’.

This means there is no barrier to moving to an adjusted scheme, which also has no clear rules. Defining ‘big emitters’ in terms of ’emissions adjusted for offshored emissions’, would result in the same candidates to be shamed into donating.

This means it is possible to introduce the concept of accounting for offshored emissions, without needing to first define clear rules. Since ‘rich nations’ needs no clear rules, ‘big emitters’ that a ‘big emitters when considering offshored emissions’ does not need clear rules initially either.

Rework the ‘Must Pay’ Policy from ‘Rich Nations’ to ‘Big Emitter Nations’.

Considering the countries who have donated, the current scheme seems to try ‘shaming’ countries into donating, with donations justified by donors as improving foreign relations and/or ethically the right thing to do.

The appeal of donations being ethically justified would seem far clear if the call for donations is on the basis of being responsible for the problem by either creating or funding the emissions, would seem far more compelling.

Consider a capability for enforcement, not retrospectively, but for the future.

If there was the threat that at some point in the future, there could be a mechanism to enable some form enforcement, it could help provide counties with further arguments to convince votes and citizens of the need to reduce emissions.

Obviously, the UN itself cannot enforce, but a scheme which weights international trade, and allows for best tariffs from compliant countries could possible. The allow countries to effectively enforce between themselves through trade.

Implementing ‘offshored emissions’ accounting.

Actually implementing ‘offshored emissions’ accounting, could reduce emissions by providing countries conducting offshore production for rich countries with a way to be properly rewarded for lowering emissions.

Without any body able to certify the quantity of emissions associated with production, sales favour whoever has the lowest cost solution, which puts more financial pressure low-income countries to favour the lowest priced electricity grid over the lowest emissions electricity grid

If products produced with lower emissions are more appealing to buyers, and they lower the ‘offshored emissions’ of the buyer, then large producers in China and other counties could accelerate adoption of lower emissions practices.

Conclusion: COP27 has not yet concluded.

I will update with more conclusions as things progress, but in summary, the current proposal could even delay emissions reduction, setting the priority on wealth redistribution over emissions reduction.