Rich country, poor country, hot planet

Europe's head start on fighting climate change might offer some useful hints for the masters of the global economy currently meeting in Japan.

Published July 7, 2008 7:33PM (EDT)

India is not a member of the elite "Group of Eight" conclave of rich countries meeting in Japan this week, but Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will be attending anyway, bearing a succinct message on behalf of the developing world.

From Reuters:

"Climate change, energy security and food security are interlinked, and require an integrated approach," said Singh.

The subtext, for those who are hoping that the G8 can hammer out at least the outlines of a new global climate change pact, is simple: Don't ask the developing world to cut back on emissions without ensuring continued progress in raising living standards for the billions of people who haven't yet had the chance to enjoy the perks of the Industrial Revolution.

The standoff between, on on side, Japan, the U.S. and Europe, and on the other, China and India, on the issue of climate change is a thorny one with no easy solution in sight. But it's a standoff that is replicated at many different levels in the global economy, like an endlessly reflecting hall of mirrors.

Within Europe, for example, another group of eight, in this case, eight formerly communist Eastern European nations that have recently joined the European Union, are worried that the EU's ambitious efforts to limit emissions will hurt their own newly expanding economies. Led by Poland and Hungary, the new arrivals fear the potential of high energy prices if the EU goes through with its plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a fifth by 2020 (as measured against 1990 levels).

Again, Reuters reports:

Warsaw says EU plans to make power generators buy all their permits to produce carbon dioxide at auction from 2013 would increase electricity prices by up to 70 percent, which would be politically unsustainable...

Hungarian environment official Tibor Farago called on richer EU states to show solidarity and help eastern countries deal with the high initial costs of reducing their dependence on coal ahead of global climate talks in Poznan, Poland in December.

The similarities between the EU's internal challenge, and the larger global quandary are obvious. In both cases, the poorer nations are telling the rich that if they want the poor to make sacrifices, they are going to have to help. But there's also a big difference. Within the EU, the debate is focusing on specific operational issues having to do with the EU's existing cap-and-trade system. For example, the European Union's current plan is to require power generators to buy carbon permits to offset all of their emissions, starting in 2013. Poland is proposing that the requirement be only 20 percent in 2013, and then ramp up by ten percent a year.

On a global scale, the world is nowhere near close to haggling out such nitty-gritty details. This is largely because the U.S. has refused, until very recently, to even admit that there's a problem that needs addressing.

It will be instructive to watch the EU's progress. If the EU manages to cut emissions while balancing the differing economic priorities of all its members, it might offer a path forward for the rest of the world.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Environment Global Warming Globalization How The World Works India