Monday, June 08, 2009

Climate Change Talks in Trouble

The purpose of the UN climate conference in Copenhagen in December is to agree on a multi-national deal to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which has no targets for emissions reductions beyond 2012. Climate change activists are looking to Copenhagen, encouraged by the newly minted US strategy, to begin a process of rapid de-carbonization of the global economy. It is not likely to happen.

First, as recent talks in Bonn make clear, some key rich countries – especially Canada and Japan – are unwilling to commit to specific legally binding targets. They want to see what the developing countries will do before making their commitments.

Second, the developing countries are asking for substantial commitments both of emissions reductions and financial support from more developed countries. The rich countries balk at the financial transfer sums involved and the poorer countries are demanding tougher targets than the rich countries are willing to offer.

Third, the US position is very soft. The greatly watered down “cap and trade” scheme for carbon reduction will not lead to significant emissions reductions but will lead to heavily subsidized green industries and increased energy costs. Economic pain with no carbon gain is likely to cause political fallout from both green campaigners worried that the US will not honour its commitments and from business who think that the costs of the Copenhagen compromise will be too high.

Fourth, to achieve a commitment of holding climate change to an increase of no more than 2 degrees Celsius will be very aggressive carbon emission reduction targets – far more aggressive than any country has yet committed to. With the US offering little – just 4-7% below 1990 levels by 2020 and Japan, Canada, China and India being reluctant to set targets, the earths climate will continue to experience the greenhouse effect.

Fifth, apart from the political issues, the logistics of lowering carbon emissions aggressively by some 4-5% per cent per annum for a considerable number of years and the economic fall-out of industry disruption such change will cause, there is the difficult problem of the data. The observed climate data, as opposed to the data produced by the twenty three climate change models tracked by the UN, is showing no evidence of warming and in fact the earth looks to be cooling, following a prolonged period of low sunspot activity and changes in cloud formation, wind patterns and ocean currents. Those who look at the evidence believe that a twenty five to thirty year cooling period is likely. The evidence for this is mounting, just at the time when the warming argument is important for policy makers – they now rely on models rather than evidence for their rationale for changing how the world’s economy functions.

Finally, as Kyoto has shown, talk is cheap. Action is more difficult. Few of the countries who signed up to Kyoto have or will achieve the targets set by that legally binding agreement. Even fewer know how to reach the substantial targets they have set for 2020, which is just over a decade away. Countries like Britain, France, Ireland and Germany which have strong targets are also suffering from severe economic challenges, some of which will persist for a considerable number of years. Changing how business is done over a period of economic recovery is likely to slow that recovery.

Independent observers watching the negotiations leading up to Copenhagen are not optimistic of a breakthrough deal being reached in Copenhagen. Compromise, back-sliding and double-speak – the kind of thing seen at the April G20 summit – will be the hallmark of the December meeting. For those who believe that the planet is imperiled, they will be deeply disappointed. Their warnings and arguments will be shrill, stark and largely emotional. For those who do not accept the basic premise of this meeting – that wise words and limited actions can change the patterns of nature – they will be relieved that the more radical emissions reduction targets and strategies are unlikely to form a part of the conversation. No one will be happy.

We can expect some of the scientists, especially those for whom the line between social action and science has become blurred, to become more and more aggressive in their “use” of evidence to support a case for radical change. We should be cautious about climate change scientific assertions in the lead up to Copenhagen. We should also be cautious about the pious declarations of politicians – deeds speak louder than words.

King Cnut tried to command the tide of the river in Britain to prove to his courtiers that they were fools to think that he could command the waves. His point was that nature commands the oceans and climate. He is purported to have said "Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws."

Our impact on the climate is, if anything, modest. It is possible that a very modest outcome from Copenhagen summit in December will meet the political need to be seen to act and the economic need to act slightly. While some will claim that the sky is falling, many will breathe a sigh of relief that compromise and back-sliding may actually lead to common sense.

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