Now that delegates to the U.N. climate summit are back from Copenhagen with no more than a non binding, hollow declaration of intent to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, it is clear that the main reason "Cop" turned into a flop is the deep divide between the world's rich and poor -- between those who watch the world on plasma screens and those who are forced to sell their plasma to survive another day.
The platitudes and inspirational speeches on how we must all come together to "save ourselves from ourselves" could not mask an inescapable reality: For poor people, while often being the main casualties of an unstable climate, planetary-scale environmental concerns are a distant second to basic human needs -- access to electricity, food, and shelter. They are therefore unwilling to put their economic growth on hold until the world comes up with economically competitive alternatives to coal-fired electricity. In India alone, 150 million people have no access to basic lighting. In the face of such grinding poverty, it's no wonder that the rich countries' attempts to thwart the expansion of fossil fuels were perceived by many in the developing world as a new form of imperialism.
This pushback by the developing world begs for a unified, yet politically feasible, agenda that can be embraced by rich and poor countries alike. One area where such an agenda can emerge is oil. Whereas reaching consensus about significant cuts in the use of fossil fuels in power generation seems to be unlikely, focusing on reducing the use of oil, which powers 95 percent of the global transportation sector, is a goal that offers a real chance of global acceptance (with the exception of certain oil-exporting countries, of course).
Why should the focus be on oil?
First, unlike the electricity sector where multiple sources of energy can contribute to the grid, in transportation, oil enjoys a virtual monopoly. Almost all of the world's cars, trucks, ships, and planes can run on nothing but petroleum. With no fuel choice at the pump and with most of the world's oil owned by non-democratic regimes, the oil market is subject to perpetual volatility. This makes oil dependence an economic depressant for most oil-importing countries and developing countries in particular. When oil prices soar, as they did in 2008, recession quickly follows, trade deficits swell to dangerous levels, and millions of people in poor countries who have just begun to rise from poverty slide back into destitution. Even in the developed world, in difficult economic times public support for policies that reduce greenhouse-gas emissions falls sharply as citizens expect their governments to put a higher priority on improving the economy. The lesson: Curbing greenhouse-gas emissions is contingent on the prosperity and economic resilience of developed countries. Conversely, prosperity is difficult to achieve so long as our economies hemorrhage money to purchase expensive oil.
Second, major developing countries like China and India are now emerging as the world's biggest auto markets, and their appetite for fuel is the main driver of global growth in petroleum demand. The recent introduction of microcars like the $2,500 Tata Nano (about which Nobel Prize winner Rajendra Pachauri, head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said he was "having nightmares") means a 65 percent increase in the number of Indian families who will soon be able to afford a car. Scores of other countries where the micro-car market could boom, including China, whose middle class is projected to hit 700 million by 2020, would not only speed the coming of future oil shocks but also contribute to a significant spike in carbon emissions. Stopping the onslaught of gasoline-only cars in the developing world is in the interest of both developed and developing countries.