Friday, October 23, 2009

Rethinking Copenhagen

October is almost over, as is any optimism associated with the Copenhagen meeting on climate change, scheduled for December. Canada, in the form of Environment Minister Jim Prentice, has made clear that it does not think a consensus can be reached when the governments of the world meet in Denmark. At best, they are hoping that they can agree to keep the dialogue open and move towards a common understanding of the challenges nations face together with a range of bilateral and multilateral arrangements which will seek to mitigate varying consequences of climate change.

But major shifts are already taking place. President Obama, who spoke on climate change at MIT this week, has redefined the US climate change strategy as fundamentally about energy and energy policy – a very different focus from the one he had six months ago. The speech, watched carefully for signals of compromise with the increasingly skeptical US Senate, made hardly any mention of cap and trade and instead focused on the need to rebalance the sources of energy used by the US while at the same time strengthening energy security. The US environmental lobby reacted angrily to this reengaging of past commitments.

India and China are resisting a draft treaty which set binding carbon emission reduction targets, compensating for the negative economic impact with significant funds for technology transfer. They see these binding targets as limiting the potential for growth, slowing recovery from recession and making it more difficult to lift large numbers of people from poverty. They are not convinced that the developed world understands the opportunity they have created for real development and see climate change mitigation as a threat rather than an opportunity.

The US and Canada are interested in using Copenhagen to reach bilateral and multilateral arrangements with India, China and others. The European Union is looking at Copenhagen as a way of leveraging climate change to promote a world carbon market, which could be supported whether or not tough limits on CO2 are imposed by treaty arrangements.

The real challenge now is communication – how can world leaders explain what will look to many like a failure at Copenhagen?

Some will not be able to. Gordon Brown, who is nearing the end of his short time as Britain’s Prime Minister, has staked some of the last shreds of his fragile credibility on being a deal maker at Copenhagen. Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary General, has his sword sharpened ready to fall on following his rhetoric earlier in the year when a deal at Copenhagen looked faintly possible – his florid language and apocalyptic predictions may lead him to be a one term Secretary General if Copenhagen is seen to be a “failure”. Prince Charles, who has made it clear that we are all doomed if Copenhagen fails, is probably packing and making arrangements to move to a cooler planet than the one he currently spends most of his time on.

If the Copenhagen talks focus on rethinking global energy strategy, integrating “green energy” with carbon based energy, accelerating technology developments for green technology and stimulating low-carbon economic development in the emerging economies of the world, then some good could come out of it. The organizers need now to act swiftly to lower expectations, shift the focus to energy and economic development, give less emphasis to cap and trade mechanisms and more to technology transfer and sharing. There is also a need to focus some time and conversation on mitigating some of the other effects of climate change, notably any possible rise in sea levels or adverse effects on food supply and health.

A global summit is an expensive affair. Bringing thousands of public servants, politicians, lobbyists and journalists together in Copenhagen, not to mention a highly destructive event for the planet, is also a logistical nightmare. To use the time unproductively by focusing on a deal that cannot be done makes no sense. While the green lobby groups, mostly funded by governments, will be upset with any retreat from their luddite agenda, a rational approach to what is possible – energy, technology transfer, sea defense strategy and global health management – makes sense. Copenhagen, rather than being a bust, could be a new start for new technologies for energy and a different future for the emerging economies of the world.

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