Thursday, 10 December 2009

(Climate) Change That We Can Believe In?

World leaders are currently meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark to discuss climate change and to negotiate a climate deal to coincide with the expiration of the current Kyoto Protocol framework in 2012.

This is the culmination of high-level UN discussions that have been taking place over the past two years, beginning at UN climate talks in Bali, Indonesia in 2007. During these talks world leaders agreed on a timetable for future climate change discussions with a view to agreeing on a concrete post-Kyoto climate deal at Copenhagen this week.

The purpose of these preliminary discussions, or “talks about talks”, was to smooth out several issues, including ensuring US participation in the process. This participation was absent from Kyoto.

With the US currently the world’s largest economy their participation is essential to the success of any post-Kyoto climate deal. It is not possible to negotiate a global deal that will successfully mitigate climate change, and the effects of climate change, when the major players responsible for climate change are absent.

The key to the success of this week’s Copenhagen negotiations will be measured by two important factors: how far the US is prepared to contribute to the process and whether the concerns of developing nations can be met.

In terms of the US commitment, if reports are to be believed President Obama may offer up a commitment to cut US carbon emission by around 18%. But Obama is not the problem. Getting his commitment through the US Congress will be an enormous task, particularly due to the strong lobby interests on Capitol Hill that will be seeking to rank up the pressure on Congress to limit US carbon cuts.

Obtaining the required legislative consent could therefore require a dilution of the US commitment. Even if Obama does not fully get his own way, and the US offer up as little as a 15% reduction – much lower than it’s counterparts in the developed world, that contribution is still much better than zero. US policy, after 8 years of the Bush administration’s (non)approach to the issue and abstention from Kyoto, is beginning to shift.

Progress is certainly being made in terms of the US beginning to live up to their responsibilities as a world leader and major contributor towards the process of climate change. Getting the US fully on board will take time; but time is a luxury. The environmental and human impacts of climate change are being increasingly revealed everyday, from melting glaciers in the Arctic to climate refugees in Africa.

Participation by the US is therefore not only welcomed but extremely essential: but this participation will have a price-tag too with developing nations now demanding that the US release $200 billion to combat climate change.

And that brings us to the second major issue at Copenhagen: developed economies, or the OECD and G8 countries, must successfully meet the concerns of the developed world: the people most at risk from climate change.

Developed nations must provide a sufficient financial package, or climate aid, that will assist governments in the developing world to address the localised impacts of climate change and environmental racism, including issues such as drought and desertification.

But while it is quite possible that there will be a deal in Copenhagen; the major questions will be what type of deal will we get and whether such a deal will be effective in terms of implementation and ambition. Whether the major negotiating challenges are successfully navigated will be inconsequential if the climate deal that is negotiated is not legally binding, ambitious in scope and realistic in terms of implementation.

The impetus for a successful deal in Copenhagen began over 2 years ago in a 2007 report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC, an international body of experts, asserted that global carbon emissions need to be reduced 25-40% by 2020, 50% by 2050 and up to 80% by 2100.

If you believe the science, these figures are quite astonishing and contextualise pressing need for a successful outcome in Copenhagen. If remedial action is not urgently taken then disaster is inevitable. Many leading environmental commentators are sceptical as to whether the reductions recommended by the IPCC can be realistically met.

They would argue that the UN process is out of sync with the required pace of action needed to address climate change and there are simply too many actors involved and too many interests at stake in the negotiating process. Perhaps the call to reduce carbon emissions by 25-40% by 2020, only 11 years away, maybe ambition to the point of delusion.

But delusion or not, it is clear that any post-Kyoto agreement must be more successful or effective than Kyoto; as Kyoto was only designed to reduce emissions by 2-3% of 1990 levels. There must be greater ambition and commitment at Copenhagen if the science from IPCC is to be matched.

Crucially, any post-Kyoto deal must be legally binding and not just a loose political commitment. If Copenhagen is to be successful then the final outcome of this climate deal process must not be just a political agreement.

If world leaders do not produce a universal, legally binding commitment, which looks unlikely at the moment, then they must at the bare minimum produce a commitment to create a legally binding regime within the next year. If there is only political agreement in Copenhagen then I would not rule out a legal treaty next year. Copenhagen may become another staging point in what has become a rather drawn out process to create a legally binding framework to replace Kyoto.

I think it may have been Hugo Chavez who once suggested that while governments go from conference to conference - the world lurches from crisis to crisis. World leaders currently negotiating in Copenhagen would be well advised to keep that in mind because time is running out to address climate change - people of the world need action now and not words.

And that is where Obama comes in again: we need his hope; but we also need change we can believe in.

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