Friday, September 25, 2009

The UN and Climate Change Negotiations

The political conviction that man is causing global warming and that concerted political action on a global scale can “halt” such warming continues to shape an agenda for the post-recession economy. The world’s airlines have committed to reducing their carbon emission by fifty percent by 2050 and car manufacturers are pushing electric cars and working on alternative energy sources for transport systems. The race to be green is on.

At the UN this week, world leaders will all proclaim that the science is settled and that the actions called for “by the science” demand a rethink of key aspects of the economy. In particular, there will be pressure to either pursue carbon taxes directly, as President Sarkozy is seeking to do in France, or to pursue carbon caps and a mechanism for trading carbon emission certificates, as the EU has done for some time and President Obama would like to do, though congress has postponed a decision on cap and trade till 2010 “at the earliest”. China and India are indicating a willingness to take some modest action, but they need major investment support in the billions to do so.

Expect a lot of rhetoric and also expect the UN to push for new monitoring and governance roles for itself – the UN sees the challenge of climate change as an opportunity to expand its scope of operations and enhance its role in the day to day affairs of nations and people around the world.

What is at stake in this conversation is the fabric and structure of the economy. Current drivers of economic growth – transportation systems, consumer spending, energy systems – all need to change to reflect a commitment to lowering emissions. From how we heat and light our houses, how we use transport, what food we buy and where we can buy it are all likely to change. Day to day living will become more expensive and poverty in the developed world will increase, as energy and food prices rise. Only fundamental changes in behaviour, led by changes in the cost of regular and routine activities, will lower emissions in a radical way.

Estimates of the likely impact of policies such as cap and trade suggest that the impact of major changes in the lifestyles of citizens of the developed world will have only a modest (if any) impact on carbon emissions and even less impact on climate, which is also impacted by the actions of winds, the sun and the oceans. What is more, the cost of achieving a less than 0.11 degree change in average global temperature will exceed $300 billion annually in North America alone. While many citizens are concerned about climate change, the personal economic impacts are beginning to create a climate of doubt and uncertainty about the actions which governments want to take. Many citizens are yet to be convinced that the actions government plan make sense.

The negotiations leading up to Copenhagen in December, when over one hundred nations will start the work of negotiations for a post Kyoto agreement, are already very fraught. Under Kyoto, greenhouse gas reductions are subject to an international system that regulates the calculation of emissions, the purchase of carbon credits and contribution of sectors such as forestry. The US is pushing instead for each country to set its own rules and to decide unilaterally how to meet its own target. The US is yet to offer full details on how its scheme might work, though a draft "implementing agreement" submitted to the UN by the Obama team in May contained a key clause that emissions reductions would be subject to "conformity with domestic law". Legal experts say the phrase is designed to protect the US from being forced to implement international action it does not agree with.

Meantime, the carbon trading and offset market is already a $100 billion a year business and growing. Climate change research has secured funding of some $7 billion each year over the last decade – a big business. Money is a major driver of the climate change alarmist movement. The skeptics, on the other hand, don’t have much money (despite claims that they are funded by Exxon, who have given less than $25million over the last decade) but they do have observational data on their side. The world is cooling, CO2 emissions are falling (mainly due the recession) and the ice extent in the Arctic and Antarctic is expanding. The UN meetings and the Copenhagen meeting in December will take place against a backdrop of scientific measurements which suggests that the alarmist climate models are, at best, overly pessimistic and at worst just plain wrong. We live in interesting times.

Perhaps we should all heed Prince Charles’ advice and give up using our cars and private jets. Maybe we should all start buying carbon offsets, despite the fact that some of the leading providers of this service have recently been found to be supporting projects which do little, if anything, to offset carbon. Perhaps we should simply ignore the rhetoric of politicians about reducing emissions and instead start to plan for adapting to climate change. Whatever we do, we should not depend on our politicians to do the “right thing”, whatever “right” is.

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