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Wishful Thinking on Bali: Merkel's Climate Change Vision Doomed to Fail

By Christian Schwägerl

The German government’s position at the UN Climate Change Conference on Bali is the most radical out of all the major industrial nations. But there’s little hope of Berlin persuading other countries to accept its ambitious vision.

Greenpeace knows what it wants from Bali. But can Merkel push her vision through?
AFP

Greenpeace knows what it wants from Bali. But can Merkel push her vision through?

When Angela Merkel last led global talks on climate change, she warned against setting utopian environmental goals. “I don’t know if politicians should be in the business of talking about visions,” she told environmental activists, who had been demanding bolder measures from her, at a 1995 conference in Berlin. Merkel, who had recently become Germany’s environment minister, had just saved the first UN conference about a climate change treaty, known as COP1, from failure.

Now Germany’s chancellor, Merkel has stayed true to many of her positions over the past 12 years. But that can’t be said about her preference for pragmatism over political vision. When Germany's Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel boarded a plane Monday to the Indonesian island Bali to represent Germany at the COP13 talks, his briefcase held a bold and utopian vision conceived by Merkel -- the most radical plans to combat climate change of any Western government.

Although emissions of greenhouse gases continue to increase around the world, in part aggravated by the economic growth of many developing countries, Berlin wants humanity to move away from fossil fuels for its energy needs. According to Merkel's proposal, each person on the planet would be expected to produce no more than two tons of CO2 emissions per year by the year 2050 -- regardless if they live in the US, China or sub-Saharan Africa. That represents half of the present per capita average.

Of course, it’s easy for Merkel to set such ambitious demands for the midway mark of this century -- she’ll be at the ripe old age of 96 by then. But the chancellor, who is a physicist by training, wants to see the sights set high immediately. She argues that, based on what climatologists currently understand about global warming, such lofty goals are the only way to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Merkel’s line of reasoning is revolutionary in the industrialized world, where full refrigerators, large houses, fast cars and powerful armies are responsible for high per capita CO2 emissions. The average American, for example, currently produces around 20 tons of CO2 each year.

If Merkel’s plan for emission caps in 2050 were implemented, US citizens would only be allowed to produce as much CO2 in a year as they currently do in just 37 days. And a German child born today would, by the time they reach middle age, have to get by with just a fifth of the current amount of fossil fuels used by an adult of that age now. Efficient new energy technologies are supposed to make Merkel’s utopia possible.

Only the Earth’s poorer inhabitants -- whose CO2 emissions per person are currently under the level of 2 tons of CO2 emissions per person each year -- will be allowed to use more fossil fuels in the future than today. That’s why, in Merkel’s view, a global limit on emissions is a question of “carbon fairness.”

When Germany’s Sigmar Gabriel lands in the Balinese capital Denpasar on Tuesday afternoon, he will be stepping onto the 21st century’s political battlefield for socio-economic as well as environmental issues. Negotiators from around the world are already sealed off in the island’s five-star enclaves in an attempt to define just exactly what carbon fairness means and what its impact will have on the future distribution of global wealth and prosperity.

The best possible outcome for the conference would give negotiators a two-year mandate to hammer out a new climate treaty for the period after 2012, when the Kyoto Protocol runs out. However, the real value of the climate summit is the way it exposes the gigantic tasks and contradictions inherent in global energy policy.

During the first week of talks on Bali, the German delegation sent sobering dispatches back to Berlin detailing the intransigence of the world’s big energy users, namely the US, China and India. None of these countries showed any willingness to agree to binding limits on emissions.

The most positive signs came from outside the conference, for example, as prominent US Democrats in Washington told the negotiators on Bali simply to ignore the Bush administration’s delegation and work towards an agreement of substance.

But at the same time within the talks, the Saudis -- already used to living in the desert heat and therefore with little fear of global warming -- were demanding financial compensation if they sold less oil in the future.

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