After Copenhagen

The climate-change conference at Copenhagen on 7-18 December 2009 has long been surrounded by high (if perhaps unrealistic) hopes that a successor deal to the Kyoto protocol could be reached that would reflect the world’s firm commitment to address a planetary emergency. But as it nears, the expectations have begun to dissolve in a welter of disenchantment and pessimism. Is Copenhagen, after all, bound to fail; and if it is, where does that leave the global effort to avert catastrophe?

The immediate signs are bleak. The United States and China, the two largest grenhouse-gas emitters, have signalled their lowering investment in the outcome. Even by the most conservative of yardsticks, COP 15 (denoting the sequence of climate-change summits of which Copenhagen is the culmination) is now doomed to political fudge. The likely result is a loss of public support for climate action and a rise in climate scepticism (already fuelled by the release of email exchanges by scientists at the Climatic Research Unit at England’s University of East Anglia.

The implications are serious, but have to be faced. It may be that at the end of the twelve-day gathering, smiling politicians will indeed attempt to put a green gloss on a distinctly brown political accord. But this will not change the fact that Copenhagenwill have failed - and, even more, that the entire quest for a “fair, adequate and binding” climate treaty has become vain.

A global reality

The purpose of United Nations-led climate diplomacy is twofold: to persuade, and to make law. There is evidence that the first purpose has been partially met, in the range of countries (among them Indonesia, Japan, and Brazil as well as the US and China themselves) currently parading domestic intent on climate change. However, a willingness to commit to climate actions in the national arena should not be conflated with a readiness to sign up to a new, international climate treaty.

The history of such global negotiations, as much as the immediate pre-Copenhagen morass, is a caution against excessive optimism. After all, the game has been played before (from the World Trade Organisation (WTO) through the Millennium Development Goals [MDG] to the G8 and G20): in so many cases, it involves a cycle of great expectations leading to formal commitments that are then subsequently reneged upon. The grim reality is that the national politics of the sort at work in most big economies (Australia being a prime current example) trumps internationalism every time.

In trade negotiations, for instance, developing countries signed up to the Doha round of talks on the promise that “development” would be the main motivator, leading (for example) to the reduction of the rich world’s agricultural subsidies. It didn’t happen: instead the subsidies remained, the rich countries sought to launch new market-opening measures in manufacturing and services, until the developing-world bloc - wielding newfound power - brought the Doha process to a halt.

The similarity between the WTO and UN climate negotiations can be demonstrated by a simple test: replace “liberalisation” by “decarbonisation” and (in relation to cuts) “tariffs” by “emissions”. The stakes may be even higher in the climate talks, but the underlying politics are no different.

A failed process

There are three reasons why Copenhagen isn’t working. First, wholesale emissions-cuts are at least as difficult to deliver as cuts in agricultural subsidies. The fear of energy-price increases and the loss of jobs and economic growth provokes intense opposition from interest-groups and voters; and politicians, whatever their personal convictions, must take account of these domestic concerns.

Second, the developing countries’ primary need is for cheap rather than clean energy, in a context where their efforts to reduce extreme poverty is not yet even half done. No wonder then that they cannot agree on emissions-constraint levels until they are clear how the additional costs involved will be met. Their preference is for the rich world to pay through a new fund - which of course would further increase the burden on consumers and taxpayers in the US, Europe and elsewhere. The existing growth of public debt in many advanced countries as a result of the global financial crisis mean that the prospect of new injections of support (beyond some relatively paltry short-term money) appear limited.

Third, at the core of the UN negotiations lie fundamental structural faults that render an agreement almost impossible. The framework convention of 1992 calls for a common but differentiated approach, and yet it differentiates only between developed and developing countries. In a newly multipolar world where developing countries are in surplus and industrialised countries in debt, this makes no sense. Any attempts to breach the firewall have so far failed.

In addition, the United States has not and will not ratify the Kyoto protocol, meaning that (unless it is scrapped) a separate treaty architecture will have to be devised just for the Americans. The climate negotiations have as a result become like trench-warfare in which Washington’s initially optimistic frontline negotiators in the Barack Obama administration lack even a trench - and are exposed to fire from all sides.

In this corroded landscape, other avenues remain open if under-explored. President Obama’s Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate (MEF) may in some respects act as an echo-chamber for the politics of the UN negotiation, but it has proposed some useful measures for cooperation on low-carbon technology-development. The stock response of leaders has been to leave concrete decisions until Copenhagen. The risk here is that a negotiating process with legally-binding implications can deter other actions.

Similarly, domestic initiatives are seen as lacking validity unless they are framed as “commitments” in the negotiation and judged against global targets. What matters, however, is not a new UN treaty annex full of “targets” - but actual policies, plans, programmes, measures, actions and national impetus to stop the growth of emissions.

This highlights the value of some of China’s recent initiatives: its emissions-intensity targets may be timid, but its plans on wind-, hydro- and solar-power are much more ambitious. In other areas, such as electric vehicles, China clearly anticipates a rapidly expanding global market and intends to be its number-one supplier.

A time to move

This is a signal of what should happen after Copenhagen.

Technology should move to the forefront of climate-change efforts. It is only the spread of low-carbon initiatives and space-race-style innovation that will make serious climate policy both acceptable and more than rhetorical to most nations. This will entail some important bilateral and “mini-lateral” collaboration (between, for example, the US, China, the European Union and India) in order to sustain the peer-pressure and to develop powerful technologies such as carbon-capture-and-storage (CCS) and large-scale solar-thermal power.

This also, unavoidably, means a huge infusion of finance. The quixotic quest to establish an effective carbon-price will change character after failure in Copenhagen; again, it will fall to governments to ensure that low-carbon technology is commercially viable (as Germany among others has already been doing). This includes regulation; subsidising renewable energy, and removing fossil-fuel subsidies; providing capital to encourage private investors to back low-carbon technologies; supporting training programmes; providing infrastructure to support new industries.

It may also include borrowing to invest - even though the indebtedness of many advanced nations will (in the short term at least) create deep political resistance to further moves in this direction. The case will have to be made that investment in productive energy-assets, for all their high (capital and incremental) costs can still return a fair profit - and that this is very different from huge bailouts of broken banks.

There is one other precious commodity required for progress after Copenhagen: time. Everyone appraised of the science knows that it is running out, and this is precisely why trying to reach an emissions-agreement amongst 192 countries under the United Nation’s aegis has become too costly an approach. What matters now is not another target-rich UN document, but national practice and international cooperation on technology and finance. It is time to stop tilting at windmills and start building them.


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