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China and USA: two giants controlling the World's Climate

China and USA: two giants controlling the World's Climate

 By Najib Saab, Issue 142, January 2010.

 The main outcome from the Copenhagen climate summit may turn out to be the Chinese-American accord that will probably mark the 21st century. The agreement between the old and new super powers, at the last minutes of negotiations, can be considered as a coup that not only marginalized the developing nations but also sidelined the European countries. In a tone characterized by bitterness, the UN Secretary General and EU leaders attempted to identify some "positive elements" in this crippled agreement by considering it a "beginning". Those who will have enough life might witness how the end will be.

 If countries actually committed to their own voluntarily targets for emission reductions announced by the end of the Copenhagen summit, the average global temperature would rise by 3 degrees C. This level is 50% above the 2 degrees limit that was considered as redline by scientists, at which it is projected that sea level might rise 59 cm, species extinction might hit 20-40%, in addition to water scarcity and drought. The end of January 2010 was set as the date when countries would present their final commitments for emission reductions.

 China, currently the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, has refused any binding targets to reduce its emissions. While offering a voluntary cut of "carbon intensity" by 40-45% from 2005 levels by 2020, it has refused any serious global monitoring, under the pretext of  "national sovereignty". The USA, that has promised to cut emission by 17% between 2005-2020 (i.e almost 3% in comparison to 1990 levels used as a reference in Kyoto protocol) still needs to wait the approval of the Congress. But can the world environment wait?

 The China-USA agreement that was met by the conference with "taking notice" provided the two biggest polluters with an additional "grace period". Despite China having the title of the "biggest polluter", the average per capita emission rate in the USA (21 tonnes) is four times more than the Chinese average (5.5 tonnes). The per capita emission for India is 1.2 tonnes, while the per capita emission levels of least developed countries are much lower. Achieving basic needs for decent life for 5 billion people in developing nations will cause a high increase in emissions if the current traditional use of oil and coal for energy generation continues, instead of developing more efficient and less polluting sources and radically reducing emissions in developed countries, to close the gap.

 Developing nations have full right to advance their economies and livelihood of their population. They also have the right to ask for accumulated international development aid previously promised. In 1970 the UN has agreed by consensus to allocate 0.7% of GDP in developed nations as annual development aid for developing countries. Since then, the actual aid did not pass a mere 0.2% except by few countries like the Netherlands and Sweden. The bills due are huge and what is now needed is a staggering 100-200 billion US $ annually as specialized aid addressing climate change through mitigation and adaptation. What was offered in Copenhagen is an annual 10 billion dollars with a promise to reach 100 billion dollars by 2020, which can translate to only 10 billion in today's prices. In the absence of any commitment to cut emissions, the meager financial assistance to address the impacts resembles prescribing a new kidney for a patient suffering from alcoholism, instead of treating the addiction. Will the Copenhagen outcome be a call for the continuation of oil addiction practices with the same polluting methods?

 Until recently, development was linked to an eventual increase of emissions.  However, even China, India and the USA, which have all been partners in the agreement to escape from binding commitments, have voluntarily self-imposed restrictions for emission reduction including increasing efficiency of traditional energy and enhancing the scope of renewable energy applications. Indeed, renewable energy programmes in China and India are the most massive in the world. India's production of electricity generated by solar photovoltaic cells will reach 20 gigawatts in 2020, which would account to 75% of combined global production of photovoltaic energy. Everyone is convinced now that the only acceptable development paradigm is to shift to a green economy, based on cleaner production and reform of consumption patterns. The only dispute is on who will pay the bill.

 Like the rest of the world, the only sustainable option in the Arab world is green development, based on the transition from "virtual economy" in some of the countries in the region, to a real economy based on income diversification, a green economy  which creates stable job opportunities. The green economy includes energy efficiency programmes, use of renewable energy, green architecture, development of infrastructure and forests and water management.

 The panic among some circles in oil exporting countries against any proposed agreement for curbing carbon emissions, depicting it as a conspiracy against them, has turned into a paranoia that is not economically justified. Even if the Copenhagen summit had managed to agree on the maximum target for stopping carbon dioxide concentration at a level of 450 ppm, oil production would have increased by an additional 11 million barrels in 2030 and the profits of OPEC countries would have quadrupled.

 Despite political haggling, the scientific consensus is that climate is changing due to human activities. To avert an imminent catastrophe, a 50% reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions is needed by 2020 and 80% by 2050. Dr. Mohammad Al- Sabban, the skilled Saudi negotiator, maybe the only one still fighting against the mainstream, reiterating statements of few skeptics as an excuse for not accepting the scientific consensus about climate change. This reminds of the case when few researchers employed by the tobacco industry continued until early 1990s to be skeptic about the negative impacts of smoking. I hope that Dr. Sabban has read the figures published last month by the British Meteorological Society, which indicated that the last decade was the warmest in 160 years and that 1998 was the hottest since climate records were documented. I hope he has also found in the Jeddah floods caused by natural runoff, a real warning for the greater harm when our countries are hit by the real impacts of climate change, with inadequate infrastructures.

It is alarming that some Arab countries may find in the ambiguous outcome of Copenhagen an excuse for delaying necessary measures to make them prepared for the impacts of climate change. Our countries will be amongst the most vulnerable, especially in freshwater, drought, food production and sea level rise. In responding to skeptics, we say that the challenge of climate change should be addressed like any other decision taken in relation to uncertainty based on the risk management and insurance options. Using the insurance principles, as long as there is adequate probability for a substantial damage, we have to take informed precautionary actions whose cost is well justified.

 Arab countries should immediately start their preparations to tackle the impacts of climate change in the following sectors:

 Water Resources: Improve efficiency, especially in irrigation, and develop new water resources including innovative desalination technologies.

Food Production: Develop new varieties of crops that can adapt to higher temperatures and different spans of seasons, need less water, and withstand higher levels of salinity, and establish a regional genetic bank.

Sea Level Rise: Adapt land use regulations to the potential rise in sea level, by increasing the minimum clear distance required between buildings and shoreline.

Infrastructure and buildings: Choice of construction materials and techniques used for buildings, roads, and utility networks should consider the risk of rising temperatures and storm surges, to make them resilient to climate change.

Biodiversity: develop mechanisms for coordinating conservation actions across political boundaries and agency jurisdiction, to support the survival and resiliency of species at a regional scale.

Human Health: Adapt human health systems and prepare them to respond to the consequences of climate change, mainly the spread of disease vectors, alongside allergic and pulmonary diseases caused by increased drought and fiercer sand storms.

Tourism: Explore and promote options for alternative tourism less vulnerable to climate variability, such as cultural tourism. Countries with low-lying coastal areas should develop alternative inland tourist destinations.

  Arab countries should immediately start implementing programmes for sustainable use of precious and finite oil and gas resources, invest in developing effective technologies for cleaner use of oil like carbon capture and storage, develop programmes for enhancing traditional energy efficiency and renewable energy including sun and wind. Each country should establish a higher council for climate change with the participation of all relevant ministries, presided over by the higher authority in the state, in addition to the establishment of a technical committee that provides the council with assessments about climate change and possible response measures. They should also establish a regional center to coordinate research, data and scientific knowledge on climate change issues, and support training and research activities needed for capacity building.

 To make their commitments proven, Arab governments should immediately embark on developing public transport, exempt hybrid cars from customs, and implement a system of tax incentives on equipment, tools and materials in the supply chain of energy saving, in parallel with increasing fees on the more polluting equipment and services. They should also develop construction codes to impose energy use efficiency and increasing green spaces including urban green roofs and liberalizing energy monopolies to allow for investments in renewable energy, directly feeding the national electricity grid. Specific targets can be set, like enhancing water and energy efficiency by 40% and expanding the share of renewable energy by 20% by 2020. All such measures are necessary and useful for Arab countries that are suffering from water scarcity, drought and air pollution, regardless of climate change.

 One of the few positive aspects of the Copenhagen summit is the fact that 193 countries have reached a consensus on the need to combat climate change. The USA and China have been forced, for the first time, to adopt numerical targets for emission reduction, and together they should take the responsibility to deliver on their promises.

 Until this accord is transformed into a global binding treaty, Arab countries must move from "virtual economy" to "green economy" that invests in genuine assets and not merely in real estate speculation and financial markets, as only green economy can create job opportunities and is immune against market fluctuations. Inaction is not an option anymore.

Arab Environment in 10 Years
ARAB ENVIRONMENT IN 10 YEARS crowns a decade of the series of annual reports produced by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) on the state of Arab environment. It tracks and analyzes changes focusing on policies and governance, including level of response and engagement in international environmental treaties. It also highlights developments in six selected priority areas, namely water, energy, air, food, green economy and environmental scientific research.
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