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  • rmacculloch

Was Greta Thunburg right? Has the UN Climate Change Conference been "a failure" and "PR exercise"?

The UK Times reports that, "A historic United Nations deal to end the use of coal power was watered down last night after a dramatic last-minute intervention from China and India". Yes, my old supervisor in the UK, Paul Klemperer, who helped design the UK Emissions Trading Scheme, predicted such an outcome over a decade ago. As we reported before the UN Climate Change conference even began, Klemperer insightfully described the key challenge to resolve climate change way back in 2009:

"The critical issue is that no strategy will work unless it's consistent with developing nations’ continued economic growth. So we're unlikely to be able to reduce the use of ‘dirty’ energy sufficiently unless we can find a cheap, clean, substitute. And that requires innovation. Developing nations aren't going to give up the immediate aspirations of their populations in exchange for environmental benefits that arise largely in the future. Worrying about preserving the environment for our grandchildren is a luxury developing nations don't have".

Pertinently on China, this is what Klemperer had to say,

"China, for example, stresses even in the Foreword to its National Climate Change Program that 'economic & social development & poverty eradication are [its] first & overriding priorities'. (Note that in saying so, the Chinese government is merely quoting from the UN's own Framework Convention on Climate Change’s statement that 'economic & social development & poverty eradication are the first & overriding priorities of the Developing Country Parties'). Whether or not this is morally right (it may be justified for a developing country) is irrelevant. It is a political imperative for the leadership of a country in which, according to the latest figures, about 200 million people live below the World Bank’s ‘dollar-a-day’ poverty line. (He then notes that, "This is not, of course, to suggest the Chinese are less 'moral' than the West - on the contrary, their value system may place more weight on, and their culture offer more support to, intergenerational justice)."

As expected, this is precisely the issue that broke the UN Conference. Both India & China won't give up their ambitions to become richer countries & elevate many of their citizens out of poverty. President Xi of China even sent a message to the conference explicitly stating that one needed to “balance environmental protection & economic development". Though great rivals which disagree on many matters, on this issue India and China, both being developing countries, are united. So government action in countries, including our own, should be focused on promoting scientific endeavors to create cheap, clean energy alternatives to oil and coal, which happens not to be our government's focus. When looking at the problem this way, it's hard to understand what our Green Party is on about.



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