September 7, 2009 6:05 pm

Warning for chances of deal on emissions

Attempts to extract long-term carbon emissions targets from large developing countries would fail to lead to a global consensus over how best to tackle climate change, Michael Spence, the chairman of the World Bank-backed Commission on Growth and Development, said on Monday.

A power plant in India©Reuters

A power plant in India. New Delhi has played down fears over emissions

Considerable lobbying is under way to persuade fast-growing emerging economies such as India and China to embrace a low-carbon future and implement caps, or even cuts, on greenhouse gas emissions. Pressure to agree action has intensified in the run up to United Nations talks on climate change in Copenhagen in December.

Professor Spence, a respected economist and Nobel laureate, warned that an attempt to force emerging economies into stringent action could backfire and produce “ugly” and “terrifying” consequences in terms of carbon tariffs and a rise in protectionism. He said the consequences of a failure to reach an agreement in Copenhagen could be “far reaching and long term”.

“I think [developing countries may] say no and it could get really ugly. If the developing world is backed into a corner, the big players will say no [to a deal] on the grounds it is truncating growth and that the risk is too great. Then the push-back will spill over into other areas,” he said.

India and China have resisted emissions cuts, saying they threaten to curb high growth and development ambitions.

Senior Indian officials argue that, according to independent projections, the country’s per capita carbon emissions are never likely to reach those of developed nations.

“Trying to get commitments to long-term target emissions from developed and developing countries is unwise and unlikely to result in an agreement,” said Prof Spence in a report released on Monday in India.

“Long-term targets pose significant risks to developing countries. If pursued, this approach will produce a stand-off, followed by growing controversy and attempts to increase pressure, which could spill over into other aspects of international trade and capital flows.”

Without mitigation measures in developing countries, current global average per capita emissions of 4.8 tons of carbon dioxide a year are expected to rise to 8.7 tons in 50 years.

Many developing countries are expected to produce about 10 tons per capita emissions by that time. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that a safe level of carbon dioxide emission is 2.3 tons.

The gap between the highest emitters and large developing economies is wide. India’s per capita emissions are about 1.3 tons; China’s is nearer 5 tons. The US and Canada produce 20 tons per capita.

Prof Spence has advocated a softer approach that allows developing countries to meet their growth ambitions, while expecting them to adopt measures progressively to lower emissions.

In the long term, success in curbing emissions depends on the adoption of technological advances. In the meantime, he said, the world should expect the carbon emissions of developing countries to reach the European trajectory and seek moderation through efficient energy use, carbon credit trading and powerful incentives to adopt technology that reduces carbon emissions.

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