What’s happening in Poznan

by | Dec 5, 2008

Relatively little media coverage so far on the UN climate talks currently underway in Poznan – but that’s not to say that nothing interesting is happening there.

Item 1 is that China and India have come out arguing that Obama’s proposed 2020 emissions reduction (namely, to get US emissions back to 1990 levels by that date – more details here) is insufficient.  He Jiankun, a Chinese delegate, was quoted in Reuters as saying that “It’s more ambitious than President Bush but it is not enough to achieve the urgent, long-term goal of greenhouse gas reductions”.

Given that the IPCC says that stabilising at 450 parts per million of CO2 equivalent (the maximum level on which we still have a better than even chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees C) probably requires developed countries to reduce their emissions by 25-40% below 1990 levels by 2020, you can see where the Chinese and the Indians are coming from.

But as David pointed out when he and I were debating this a couple of weeks ago, the US’s emissions have gone through the roof under Bush: even the very modest target proposed by Obama is going to be a massive stretch for them.  Expect this one to run and run.

Item 2: Brazil is reportedly sidling up to per capita convergence as the formula for sharing out a global emissions budget, at least if you believe this report in Business Green yesterday, which says:

Brazil reportedly put the finishing touches to proposals apparently based on the contraction and convergence principle that would see countries agree to per-capita emission reduction targets. Under the proposals, emission targets would be set on a per-head-of population basis, meaning that developing economies with low-carbon emissions per capita such as China would face less-demanding targets, while those countries with the highest level of emissions per person would have to deliver the deepest cuts.

Fascinating if true, but they don’t cite their source, so I’m regarding as tentative until I hear it from another source or two. 

Item 3, meanwhile, is that in a workshop on “shared visions”  for the future on Tuesday, China made some tentative steps towards setting out its stall on how it would want an emissions budget to be shared out.  This is very interesting, as China’s the most important of the handful of developing countries for whom straight per capita convergence wouldn’t be advantageous – as its per capita emissions have (just in the last few months) gone over the global average per capita level, meaning that even immediate convergence at equal per capita shares to the atmosphere would leave them with no surplus permits to sell. What then is China proposing?  The Worldwatch Institute wrote it up like this:

China, citing the equity language of Article 3, mentioned the need for eventual “global per-capita emissions convergence” – the idea that, at some point in the future, all countries in the world should have similar per-capita emissions as a matter of climate equity. But this concept did not pick up momentum, at least not in the workshop.

That had me sitting bolt upright in my chair and reaching for the phone to ask people in Poznan if it was really true.  The answer back: not quite.  In fact, what China seems to have been proposing is a system of per capita convergence in cumulative emissions – i.e. taking into account historical responsibility for past emissions, as well as current emissions – which would clearly be much more advantageous to it, given how much later China industrialised than (say) Britain (for whom historical responsibility based allocations of emissions permits would be rather, ahem, challenging).

But the real significance here is less the specific formula that China proposed (more details needed – if you were in the workshop, please drop me an email), and more the fact that China may now be starting to engage in a conversation about the formula that might be used to share out a global emissions budget.  Up to now, discussion of stabilisation targets for greenhouse gas levels in the air has been off the table – in large part due to Chinese unwillingness to talk about how the emission budget implied would then be shared out.  If that’s changing, then the future just got a little more hopeful.


  • Alex Evans

    Alex Evans is founder of the Collective Psychology Project, which explores how we can use psychology to reduce political tribalism and polarisation, a senior fellow at New York University, and author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? (Penguin, 2017). He is a former Campaign Director of the 50 million member global citizen’s movement Avaaz, special adviser to two UK Cabinet Ministers, climate expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office, and was Research Director for the Business Commission on Sustainable Development. He was part of Ethiopia’s delegation to the Paris climate summit and has consulted for Oxfam, WWF UK, the UK Cabinet Office and US State Department. Alex lives with his wife and two children in Yorkshire.

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