Copenhagen Update: What is in it for Thailand?

The global climate change negotiation, known as COP15, or the 15th session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), will take place in Copenhagen the end of this year. The meeting aims to ambitiously complete part of the 2007 Bali Roadmap, among others, to come up with a new comprehensive protocol to replace the Kyoto Protocol, produced in 1997 as a legal-binding treaty under the UNFCCC. It is a race against time as the Kyoto Protocol is set to expire in 2012.

Two weeks of talks in Bonn this June leading up to Copenhagen, showed that such a task is truly formidable. In part, it revealed large existing gaps between developed and developing countries on various serious issues related to commitments to fight climate change, amidst global economic ills that require equal attention, to say the least. I wrote an article early this year, speculating how gloomy such a hope appeared, especially after the break-down of the Doha Round negotiation in Geneva. Temporally speaking, it seems that my guess will most likely be true-and Bonn is an acid test that reconfirms my speculation. The meet in Bonn consisted of the 30th sessions of the UNFCCC's Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI) and the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA); the sixth session of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action under the Convention (AWG-LCA 6); and the eighth session of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Further Commitments for Annex I Parties under the Protocol (AWG-KP 8). In theory, as both the AWG-LCA and AWG-KP focused on long-term issues and strategies, it becomes inevitable that the new climate architecture accommodates an entirely new and ambitious plan of action to harness win-win options for climate and the economy, in support of a global sustainable development.

It is hoped that agreements will be reached to conclude and charter that new protocol into the next challenging years of climate risks, it is not clear how many years it would cover. Factoring the present economic recovery efforts in, and if and only if, the new protocol is carefully designed, it is very clear that such a post-2012 protocol could at the same time contribute positively to the new economic recovery as well as taming fears of climate repercussions.

Dangers seem to be hidden and would appear as a true challenge between now and December. I strongly believe that a Plan B is needed to ground and ensure measurable actions of developed and developing countries alike. Disappointingly, the present stall in climate and trade talks may hamper the required stabilization of GHG levels at the level more than 80 percent below current levels, for which Kyoto Protocol has already fallen short. Though such a target was no secret, developed countries-whose historical emissions was more than 10 times of developing countries, and whose population representing less than one fifth of the world's-may not fully meet their combined Kyoto targets. Falling short of being a "hard law" under Kyoto Protocol, it is not possible to impose a sanction on countries that could not meet the allocated Kyoto targets. Since its very early period of implementing the UNFCCC, a "soft law" needed to be designed in that fashion to encourage cooperation of every possible country, meeting binding commitments by developed countries have been difficult, mainly for fear of negative impacts of having to take measures punitive for their economic progress. Led by the US, burden sharing was called for under a "meaningful" participation of key developing countries to commit to reduction. A recent research by Professor Dr. Bertrand Hamaide from Belgium falsifies this fear, and also arguing that doubling the cost of emissions reduction would dent only one percent of developed countries' annual gross domestic product, the GDP. This is consistent with Stern's figure. However, in the negotiating circle, burden sharing and leadership have remained a very sticky issue. Today, calls for leadership of developed countries and burden-sharing of developing countries never wane and they will most likely stay so all the way to Copenhagen-and after COP15.

Talking about leadership, President Obama seemed to have brought some dim light to the talks, but whether that will be enough to brighten Copenhagen or not remains highly uncertain. True, hopes that the United States under President Barack Obama would end the Bush-era free-riding strategy on climate change, and that he would offer a big push to Post-Kyoto, are increasingly giving rise to doubts-again as urgency of domestic policies seem to have taken over the passage to Copenhagen. Moreover, the US takes another route to pressure the world in sharing its long over-due leadership. A watered-down climate change bill was passed by the lower House on 26 May by a narrow 219-212 margin, and was recently thrown out of the window by the Upper House last week. The proposed 17% cut in the bill, by 2020 over 2005 levels, relies very heavily on a cap-and-trade system, which might not result in a global net cut. This target already far from ambitious level, as 2005 level already exceeded Kyoto target of 1990.

Moreover, the basic position of the US, which had stayed out of the Kyoto Protocol, but now forming its own political momentum through technology transfer, and the new law, has remained the same in the negotiation front. It has been persistent to push major fast-growing developing countries such as Brazil, China and India to also take some forms of commitments in emissions reduction, in the light of their current sky-rocketing absolute emission levels, without a reference to past emissions of the North. In particular, China is an easy target as it has already overtaken the US as the world's largest present emitter of GHGs. That may not automatically redeem China's "right to pollute", however, but neither should it be a pure "China bashing". To be fair to China, it has already fulfilled some of its fair share in shouldering the burden, given the same comparable level of income per capita of other developed countries. Hence, to get China to agree to deepen its emissions reduction commitment is not going to be easy.

This is serious, as the proposed bill that might be resurged back in the US Houses seeks to penalize countries that fail to internalize climate change costs into its production costs, and thus its passage might upset others, and rock the trade negotiations further. Specifically, the provisions in the US climate change bill allow the application of border taxes to imports from countries that fail to take measures to reduce GHG emissions. While the US argues that this measure is to prevent the so-called "carbon leakage", but the proposed border tax measure could further deepen divisions between the US and the developing world, as the latter has gotten smarter in response. This could easily trigger another round of trade disputes in Geneva.

The road to Copenhagen is therefore rough, considering also the offered reduction targets by the European Union (EU), by 20 percent reduction, by 2020 below 1990. The EU is ready to match, by raising this target to 30 percent if other advanced economies do the same. Thus, Copenhagen will produce "something" only if and when the US, the EU, and key developing countries can reach key agreements before December. That is obviously impossible. Undoubtedly, hence, Plan B is needed and it will be a more realistic framework for fine-tuning what COP15 could reach, but certainly not a fully pledged Copenhagen Protocol. Given the failure to meet the Kyoto targets by developed countries, it is perhaps crucial to ensure that the new protocol is fully legal-binding. However, legal-binding nature of Post-2012 could be a double-edge sword. Though compliance is crucial to ensuring fulfillment of a commitment, developing countries have always shied away from discussing this formally for fear of a back-fire, if one day they have to take on a commitment. Meanwhile, developed countries have seized the opportunity of Kyoto Protocol having no legal-binding nature to partially fulfill their targets, knowing fully well that there will be no repercussion under Kyoto, and doing so might even allow them to escape a supposedly "finer net" of the Post-Kyoto regime.

That Japan, Canada, Australia and a few more Annex I countries have failed to meet their Kyoto reduction targets is as much a concern as bad news for designing the future regime. For Copenhagen to inch forward, developed countries will have to stop playing the above "number game", which in effect produces new commitments falling short of what urgently needed in the Post-2012 regime. Japan for instance, proposed in Bonn 15% reduction by 2020 below 2005 baseline actually amounts to 2% less than its Kyoto target. Likewise, unless credible contribution by major developing countries is documented, measured, revealed and traceable, progress towards Copenhagen will be very difficult to break through. One fact stands out without having to wait for the dust in Copenhagen to form. To take the globe out of climate dangers, deeper cuts in the neighborhood of nearly 80% are needed by 2020 using 1990 as a baseline. If the political hurdles are jumped over, the technological solutions are only partial in the whole equation. To all, perhaps the even more challenging task of parties heading to Copenhagen is how the fierce weather-related extreme events are tamed, needed technologies are transferred and funding for adaptation is ensured-and is rapidly mobilized and disbursed.

Thus said, the road to Copenhagen, with a brief stop in Bangkok the end of September, will not be a smooth and easy one. Against the steep political terrain at home, Thailand could however lift that collaborative spirit to fight climate collapse, and have COP15 a monumental meeting by sharing its track records on climate change related policies and measures, and encouraging members to carve out a quick "Plan B". Whatever that might be, Bangkok is a good moment to start a dialogue on Plan B.

Let me cite just a few examples that Thailand could communicate to the rest of the world. Being a middle-income developing country, Thailand set an ambitious renewable energy target of 8% by 2010, and Thailand is trying very hard to meet that target. The grass-root level initiatives on alternative energy development, though small and still fragmented, should be show-cased. This is a major leap that it has made without having to wait until the Chaophraya River runs dry, or pita disappears.

Thailand's participation in negotiating the Post-2012 regime has been isolated from the general public, and Bangkok Talks will not only be another opportunity for the Thai government to gather momentum under the international spotlight, but it is a chance to bring the public closer during this historic moment. Enhancing public participation in climate change affairs has been championed by Climate Policy Initiative of SEA START, to broaden stakeholder participation in constructing the new climate architecture. Proposals that have been floated were reviewed and synthesized for easy understanding. Working with partners in six Asian countries to share country-specific data and information, SEA START concluded that "process matters", and had subsequently encouraged the Thai government to recognize and legitimize that right to participation by the public.

While economic, political and weather-related crises intensify, and the clock is ticking away, Thailand is at another important junction to determine its own course of future development-but at this time in history, as never experienced before, these crises are common opportunities to all. Our stakes are highest ever. Every eye in the world will be on Thailand in September. The rest is up to us.

Sitanon Jesdapipat, Ph.D. Associate SEA START RC Chulalongkorn University