Copenhagen climate change circus

December 2, 2009 — by Arnav Dugar

The international community is in concord over one statement regarding climate change: it is a problem that needs to be addressed. However, not much else is known about the issue.

By how much are emissions altering the atmosphere? What impacts will plague future generations? When will it be too late?

Answers to these three questions seem as likely as a panacea for climate change. The only certainty is of some malady sometime in the future. So we have identified a problem we created for ourselves and are now trying to battle it blindfolded, without any substantial knowledge. If some extraterrestrial civilization were to visit the Earth, they would see a political circus. Leaders are clowning around, trying to appear devoted to the cause without taking any action. Organizations are juggling ideas but are not settling on any. Only a few are truly concerned about the earth-shattering decisions and are getting drowned out in the ruckus.

Cap and trade system throws US into disagreement and chaos

Although the Waxman-Markey and its successor, the Boxer Bill in the US have both proven to be duds stuck in Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) seems to be the remedy. The agency, empowered by the Supreme Court, has the authority to enforce its own regulations without Congress’ approval.

The problem, at least for the US, seems to be solved, but the EPA has proposed somewhat of a two-faced solution, cap and trade.

It aims to reduce US emissions by 17% from 2005 to 2020 by setting a cap on emissions while giving credits for not reaching the cap. However, the trade of these credits puts a dollar value on carbon, making it another economic game designed to reap the benefits of the world’s fear of climate change.

It is already apparent from the disagreement within several trade organizations, including the Chamber of Commerce, that several businesses are looking to take advantage of the system. Companies like Nike which manufacture and pollute abroad favor the system since they will easily receive credits, while other companies are strongly against it and are threatening to sue the EPA.

Instead of reorienting the US in a positive direction, the EPA has created a repulsive cocktail of economics, politics, and science.
China’s emissions policy: Polluting less by polluting more

A policy to reduce emissions that allows an overall increase in pollution seems counter-intuitive, yet China plans to adopt such a scheme. The proposal will mandate a decrease in energy consumption, which is directly related to emissions levels, for every unit of GDP produced.

At first glance, China seems to be making a constructive decision. However, according to their proposal, if China produces more units of GDP, which means the country’s total GDP increases, then China can thus emit more. The GDP does have to increase more than the carbon emissions do, but it is certain since China’s economy is rapidly growing at a steady rate.

The policy is merely to please the world and to look pretty on paper at Copenhagen not to genuinely improve the climate. Such an obviously lax paradigm from the country with the highest emissions levels will not only cause dispute over the standards of other countries, but also hinder any progress.


In past climate change conferences, deforestation, accounting for 20% of global emissions, has been overlooked. In response, the UN devised a program to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD), but the solution unravels a host of new problems instead of solving them.

REDD aims to achieve its goal by having developed nations bribe developing countries to not cut down forests. In return, developed nations spend from the national budget to get emissions credits to buy themselves out of pollution penalties.

Even if it seems to do its job, the aftermath paints a very different picture. REDD rewards the worst offenders while countries with low deforestation rates like Costa Rica do not benefit. Also forests gain an artificial value giving governments incentives to push the natives out.

Overall, REDD leaves developing countries addicted to the program since deforestation restarts when the cash flow stops. And without a standard between contributions, countries will hunt for the “cheapest” way to get credits, leading to an non-sustainable business rather than a program for environmental change. Regardless, there would be no method to measure the improvement, if any.
Procrastination until another Copenhagen

At the end of the day when this circus packs to leave for Copenhagen, it is unlikely that substantial progress will have been made. Those in power who run the circus rides, who design the policies and know how to take advantage of them, will end up richer. Meanwhile those who are genuinely playing the game have very little power to achieve anything.

With no specific goals set, countries such as China, are left to interpret the standards. America’s goal also is to only look good at Copenhagen, and since the EPA guarantees this, little progress is being made.

There is even talk about a second Copenhagen since the expectations for the first one are already plummeting.

Some fear what the future may bring. Others are simply playing the game. Only time will tell if Copenhagen III will become a reality or if the world will give up on the idea altogether by then.

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