Alan Oxley: Beat Poverty First, Then Tackle Emissions

  • Date: 08/01/10

The climate change debacle at Copenhagen last month underlined the reality that any new global agreement will be on the terms set by developing countries. Leading commentators have written that China’s leading role in this was a demonstration of its new influence as an economic power.

In one important sense they are wrong. This was not just China, but India, Brazil and the Arab oil states as well. Furthermore, the position of these countries and the rest of the developing world has not changed in the 20 years since climate change has been on the global agenda.

For developing countries, climate change and other environmental strategies which retard economic development are unacceptable. They scored this into UN orthodoxy at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. They executed the principle when they emasculated the Kyoto Protocol by insisting only rich countries cut emissions.

The failure at Copenhagen was not the result of the greater influence of developing countries, it was a failure, yet again, of Green activists and environmental officials in rich countries to understand the position of developing countries and the political implications of that.

China used its enhanced authority to deliver the developing country message in the form of a humiliating public snub to Western leaders at Copenhagen.

China sent an official, not a political leader, to negotiate with Barack Obama.

The European Community, the champion of the Kyoto Protocol, was shut out of the negotiations between the US and the leading developing economies. When the Danish Prime Minister nominated an Indian minister to pair with Penny Wong to sort out differences on one issue, the Indian minister simply did not show up.

The zealotry which has imbued the campaign to halt global warming has blinded environmental officials and many politicians to the reality of what can be achieved. Any experienced UN negotiator would have warned it was a mistake to send a large number of heads of government to Copenhagen in the belief that that would overcome the deep and fundamental divide between rich and poor.

The justification for engaging in such a diplomatic suicide mission is that stopping global warming is the overriding moral issue of the time. Not to everyone.

In India and China alone there are 600 million people living below the poverty line. Eradicating poverty is the moral imperative in the developing world.

The leading US climate change economist, William Nordhaus at Yale, has maintained for years that if developing countries cut emissions too sharply and too soon as advocated by Greenpeace, WWF and the European Union, they would further impoverish their people.

What is the solution of environmental activists? Greenpeace and WWF laid theirs out before Copenhagen. They recognised that the result of their strategies to increase power costs and cease conversion of forests to more economically productive activities in developing countries would lower economic growth and hinder efforts to increase agricultural production.

Their solution? Double current aid budgets (presently about US$100 billion per year).

This became a mantra among Western leaders before Copenhagen. If more aid is not on the table, no deal is possible, intoned Gordon Brown, Nicolas Sarkozy and Hillary Clinton. But they were talking to Green activists, not developing countries, and still viewing climate change through a rich country lens. They had bought the Green line that the world’s poor were on the same side as the activists. They clearly are not.

Welfare is provided to the disadvantaged in rich countries (as in the Rudd plan to compensate low-income earners harmed by the emissions trading). So do the same to compensate the world’s poor for the cost of global emissions trading.

They have forgotten a golden rule of aid that developing countries have not used it to promote economic growth, not to provide cash. The rich country plan is correctly perceived as a form of global green welfare compensation for the loss of jobs and income which would be caused by deep and early cuts in emissions by developing countries.

Zealots have short life spans when the cost and impracticality of what they urge becomes apparent. Only now are the costs of their climate change plans becoming apparent. If Copenhagen was not a climate change epiphany for Western leaders, they will never be able to envisage a practicable global strategy to reduce global warming.

Any strategy has to protect the capacity of poor countries to eradicate poverty. What rational person would reject that proposition?

Alan Oxley is chairman of World Growth, a US-based free market NGO which attended the Copenhagen Summit.

The Australian, 8 January 2010


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