‘End of Kyoto would mean nothing for the climate’

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Bjorn Lomborg, the Danish author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, tells Shonali Ghosal that the hard-fought agreement at the Durban climate change conference is not going to save the planet.

Bjorn Lomborg

Excerpts From An Interview

Does the world need Kyoto?
The short answer is no. Even if all the countries kept the promises they made in the Kyoto Protocol for the next century, we would have reduced global temperatures by 0.15 degrees. If you set 1990 to 100, the emission of CO2 today, over the Kyoto period is 142.4. Without the Kyoto Protocol, it would have been 142.7, so we cut virtually nothing. The cost-benefit analysis indicates that a smartly made Kyoto would cost about $180 billion a year with the benefit being just a third. So the end of Kyoto would mean nothing for the climate.

Does the Durban agreement offer more hope than Kyoto?
There’s virtually nothing but empty promises. The Kyoto Protocol will be a symbolic act to continue. As for the Green Climate Fund, they have provided the structure for it but there’s no money, which was always the problem. The real meat of the deal, the idea getting a binding deal in 2020, is basically just delaying tactics. They said that in 2007 with the Bali roadmap that they would have a deal in 2009 in Copenhagen, which they didn’t. They are just saying, “We didn’t do it in two years but we promise to do it in nine.” It requires a certain frame of mind to say that is a success.

But wouldn’t the Green Climate Fund help once it’s set up?
If you want to help countries deal with climate, especially poor countries, you should spend the money on adaptation, not on green energy. If you ask local people in developing worlds, their immediate concerns are the fact that their kids don’t get enough food, an education or they die of fatal infectious diseases. So there’s something unholy about giving them a solar panel instead.

So what should we be focusing on?
To fix climate change, you should spend on inventing new and cheaper green energy. The fundamental problem with the world is that we like fossil fuels not because it pollutes but because it powers everything we like about modern society: heat, cooling, food and transportation. So telling people not to use fossil fuels is not going to work but if we invest in innovation and research for green technology, everyone would buy it. It would be cheaper, it’s much more effective and will actually solve global warming unlike the Kyoto protocol. But to fix problems in the world, obviously the most vulnerable people in the world right now don’t need us to change temperatures in a 100 years by a tiny bit.

But people often put forward the argument that if there isn’t a planet in the long term, how does mitigating the problems of today help?
That is an ingenious argument just as it is to say that if you don’t feed malnutritioned people today, they will be dead. Obviously all problems are important but it doesn’t mean that we exaggerate and say that we won’t have an earth. The damage cost of unmitigated climate change will be about 1-5 percent of the GDP. That’s not nothing but it is definitely not 100 percent. It is a PR strategy to say that there won’t be a planet. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be concerned but painting a picture saying there won’t be a planet is simply untrue and it is scaremongering. It is a problem like many others that we need to think about but scaremongering has not worked in the past and is unlikely to work in the future.

Can we fix climate change and the problems of today simultaneously?
The annual cost of Kyoto is about $180 billion. If we spend part of that $180 billion on innovation into green energy research and development, that will fix global warming in the long run. But we could also spend about half of it on fixing the problems that are affecting the world now. The UN estimates that for about $100 billion dollars, we could get clean drinking water, sanitation, basic healthcare, education and food to everyone who needs it in this world. I would say that’s a better legacy to leave for the future.

Why do you think developing countries such as India or China are fighting for the Durban agreement or even Kyoto?
Many developing countries simply want money from the developed countries because they know they are not getting much from carbon emission, they want to make sure they get the $100 billion green development fund, maybe more. Clearly China has made huge amounts of money on selling emission rights. It’s one of those places where we end up having a lot of trade and feel-good certificates that don’t mean anything. This is a charade to get huge amounts of money from guilty First World countries.

But does the Durban agreement cut more emissions than Kyoto?
They are not going to cut any emissions. They are not going to do anything before 2020; it’s an admission of defeat. It’s less ambition than ever before now. This is a showcase, it’s a case of making everyone feel like “We have actually managed to get some sort of agreement.” But I actually thought this was about making something that will work for the climate.

So will the Durban agreement be a waste?
We won’t waste much money on the Durban agreement because they are just promises but the issue is not about wasting money but that we are wasting time. The depressing thing is we are going to have the same conversation in 2019-20 when negotiations break down. All that it’s achieved and the only reason why everyone’s willing to say yes to this is because we will kick the can so far down the road that none of the leaders right now will have to do this, which is the story of all climate change negotiations.

But then why do you think China and India agreed to the binding agreement, which they were opposing?
They haven’t agreed to a binding agreement, they have agreed to negotiate a binding agreement by 2020 and then in 2019, they will just say “We couldn’t do it, sorry” and there will be a thousand different reasons why. What they are getting out of it is that they saved face. They can all say, “We have done something, we didn’t just waste taxpayers’ money going to Durban” but, of course, they didn’t actually do anything that would have any effect on the climate or have any substantial cause.

Shonali Ghosal is a Correspondent with Tehelka.
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