November 2009


Copenhagen and beyond: Conference bound

By Tim Flannery
Copenhagen and beyond: Conference bound

World leaders pause after the climate-change discussions at the G8 Summit in L'Aquila, Italy, 9 July 2009. © Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.

On the morning of 19 December, we will likely wake to read the results of the United Nations Climate-Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. The meetings will be, according to Lord Stern, the most important to have occurred since World War II, and whatever their outcome they will have a lasting effect on our planet. Millions of years from now it will still be possible to read in Earth’s rocks the success, or failure, of our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

For all their importance, the international climate negotiations have hardly been pursued with urgency. Until recently, they have been somewhat Wagnerian in character: seemingly interminable and with expectations of resolution eternally denied. In September, however, something happened that set the negotiations on a new path and gave them renewed momentum. The new mood was perhaps best captured by the leaders of the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh on 25 September, when they said they would “spare no effort to reach agreement in Copenhagen”. For the first time, I’m somewhat optimistic that global-treaty negotiations will produce a meaningful outcome.

So, what has caused this remarkable change? The shift seemed to crystallise on 22 September – the second day of New York’s Climate Week – at the Summit on Climate Change, an event organised by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in the hope of giving new momentum to global talks. Ban is truly passionate about the need to address climate change; at his invitation, 100 heads of government met at the UN expressly to discuss the issue. Although the media was dominated by assessments of President Obama’s climate speech, which many considered disappointing, far more important things were happening in that room.

The crossing of this climate-negotiations Rubicon was to a large extent made possible by the UN’s careful planning under Ban’s direction. In May he attended the World Business Summit on Climate Change in Copenhagen, which had been organised by the Copenhagen Climate Council (CCC), and experienced for himself the momentum generated by the 800 or more business leaders at the meetings. Within weeks he had requested that CCC councillors attend Climate Week, asking them to chair roundtable discussions with heads of government on some aspect of the climate problem. Mixing political and business leaders in an outcomes-focused forum proved to be dynamic and engaging, and by the end of the day a sense of collegiality was emerging among the participants, which those I spoke to felt would carry through to December. Equally important was the fact the heads of government left knowing that business leaders – even those from heavily polluting industries such as Alcoa and Duke Energy – were deeply engaged with the issue, and that expectations of an effective agreement being reached in Copenhagen were high.

While all this was occurring, the very framework within which parties were negotiating was beginning to shift. During a speech on 21 September at New York University, Australia’s climate minister, Penny Wong, outlined a proposal for an agreement that would be based – at least in part – around “national schedules”, within which nations would list the measures they are taking to tackle climate change. The actions listed within the national schedule would have to add up to a pre-agreed volume of emissions reductions. The model is drawn from international trade negotiations, in which nations list the measures they have taken to free up trade.

Treaties like the Kyoto Protocol, however, work very differently from this: they are framed around legally binding, nationwide targets for reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions, with strict rules of compliance. National schedules, in comparison, vest much autonomy in national governments and have relatively simple accounting requirements, making them much more attractive to developing countries such as India and China. It may seem that ensuring compliance under a national schedules approach would be more difficult than under a global treaty; however, even with an agreement as binding as Kyoto, it has not been possible to hold some countries, such as Canada, to their promised targets. I’m confident that this potential difficulty will not prove to be a fatal impediment to the national schedules approach.

When the idea of national schedules was first mooted by Australia in May, it elicited little interest, perhaps because parties were still committed to a Kyoto-like outcome. Now, however, with time running short – just over two months remains until Copenhagen – its hour may have come, particularly in regard to developing countries. It’s tempting to believe that the national-schedules concept may have played a role in prompting the breakthrough announcement on 17 September by India’s environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, that India would agree to placing limits on its carbon emissions, and that it may have influenced Chinese President Hu Jintao’s announcement on 22 September that his country would mandate a “notable decrease” in the carbon intensity of its economy by 2020. These surprising decisions by the two largest developing nations in the world, both of which have long declined to engage meaningfully in climate negotiations, have revitalised the wider discourse. Along with Japan’s commitment to reduce its emissions to 25% below its 1990 emission levels by 2020, and South Korea’s introduction of an enormous green stimulus package, India’s and China’s undertakings are shifting global climate leadership decisively to the East. This will increase pressure on the US to bring something concrete to the table in December.

Much will need to be re-thought if a national-schedules agreement is to prevail among developing countries. Under Kyoto, carbon trading is relatively straightforward: the Clean Development Mechanism establishes a clear pathway for investment in ‘emissions abatement’ in developing countries. It’s as yet unclear how carbon trading could work under a national-schedules agreement, so international carbon markets are likely to remain soft. This does not bode well for our prospects of achieving an overall carbon solution, because high carbon prices are required to drive technological innovation and the uptake of renewable energy. While these complexities do not inevitably make an effective agreement at Copenhagen impossible, they do indicate that a long and complicated process of negotiation is likely to follow, regardless of how much is achieved at the conference itself. Whether Earth’s climate system will grant us the time we require for this is a large question.

Despite these promising developments, the complications at Copenhagen are likely to be many. The largest by far concerns the US and whether it passes its cap-and-trade bill (which is sponsored by Senator Kerry). If the Kerry bill does not pass the Senate prior to Copenhagen, the US is likely to fall back on regulation, using the powers of its Environmental Protection Agency to force new emission standards on coal-fired power plants, thereby shutting down the most polluting ones. While practically effective, such an outcome would leave the US without any commitment to an overall cap on its emissions, which would likely see the country arguing that it too should be allowed to proceed under a national-schedules approach, with its EPA regulations forming the centrepiece. Such an eventuality would probably lead to the collapse of cap-and-trade bills in Australia and Canada and to a catastrophic collapse of these kinds of negotiations, because it would leave the Europeans largely isolated in their commitment to a formalised emissions cap. It would also leave the developed world without a shared emissions cap.

There are innumerable lesser worries. Human fallibility – from which none of us is exempt – will be an ever-present risk. It was rumoured that Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, who was seated between President Obama and Al Gore during Climate Week, more than once referred to the president as “Mr Gore”. Moreover, Prime Minister Rasmussen, although a person of great integrity and political achievement, is new to both the climate problem and this kind of high-level negotiation, which may prove awkward given the vital role played by the host country in a conference of this kind. The previous prime minister of Denmark, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, was far more experienced with climate policy. He left office this August, however, to head up NATO – just four months before COP 15.

Of equal concern is the questionable administrative competence of the various institutions guiding the negotiations. Simply getting to the meeting rooms in the UN’s New York headquarters on 22 September was fraught with difficulty. There were no stairs, and the situation became farcical when wave after wave of delegates became wedged inside overcrowded elevators. One elevator operator doggedly refused to convey his lift to the appropriate meeting-room level, despite it being stuffed to the gills with heads of government. Audiovisual aids at the summit proved no more helpful. When I chaired a meeting of some 80 ministers for the environment in a room adjacent to the main hall, I had to contend with a faulty microphone. Later, as I stood in the main hall delivering a summary of our deliberations, I discovered that the faulty microphone had somehow followed me and was making my every second word inaudible. I can only hope this creaking infrastructure isn’t all that stands between us and climate chaos.

More seriously, the issue of approving – and funding – a bureaucracy to oversee the new agreement remains a formidable obstacle, as does the issue of sourcing sufficient funding to enable the poorest countries to undertake adaptation and mitigation measures. African nations have requested a minimum of US$67 billion per annum for this purpose, a sum that, in these straitened times, developed nations such as the US and England will not find easy to contribute.

Is any agreement going to assist us in adequately avoiding dangerous climate change? More and more people believe, along the lines of James Lovelock, that our planet is already beyond hope. Although climate science admits this possibility, the probability of it being true is assessed to be small. Once a global price on carbon is agreed, the inherent vigour of profit-driven industry is likely to lead to a swift – if messy – transformation of our energy systems to far cleaner models.

Indeed, transformation is already underway: in the US alone, 48% of all new energy infrastructure installed in 2008 was of a low-emission type, such as wind – and this in the absence of a global deal or national carbon price. Further progress depends largely on the fate of the US cap-and-trade bill. There is, I believe, ample reason for hope, though not one instant for complacency.

Tim Flannery

Tim Flannery is a scientist and writer. His books include Now or Never, The Weather Makers, The Future Eaters and Atmosphere of Hope.

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