It is now clear that the Copenhagen summit of world governments, due to meet in less than twenty days, will not reach a binding agreement on climate change as was originally intended.
China, the USA, Britain and Canada working closely with host country Denmark, have agreed to a two step process. Step one, to be completed at the Copenhagen summit, is a global political commitment to combat climate change – reinforcing the key messages from Rio, Kyoto, Bali and the recent G20 meetings. This political manifesto will contain nothing new, though Obama is subtly seeking to shift the message so that it focuses on clean energy and not embrace the entire gambit of economic activity.
The second step, much more difficult given the failure to reach agreement over the last twenty four months, will be for the world leaders to agree on a timetable for a binding agreement that will dramatically reduce CO2 emissions, creating a technology and resource transfer funds for developing nations and commit the world to sustainable development. The UN have suggested that a conference in the spring of 2010 will seek to narrow the basis of such an agreement.
Time is running out. The Kyoto Accord, the last binding agreement, is due to expire in 2012. As it does so, legally binding treaty obligations which include the purchase of offsets, expire and nations can legally cease to spend billions in support of reforestation and other projects around the world said to be “green”. Despite the fact that the Kyoto Accord is a remarkable failure – global CO2 emissions continue to rise, even in countries which are signatories to the accord – many nations are seeking an agreement which is much more aggressive than Kyoto ever was. It is worth noting, however, that the EU stands as a group of nations which will likely meet its Kyoto obligations, with several countries (France, Germany, Britain, Greece and Sweden) doing so without the need to purchase offsets.
In this lies the problem. The drastic measures sought by the green lobby – an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions based on a 1990 baselines to be achieved by 2050 – coupled with the recommendations for a new global government agency for climate change are simply too much for many nations to take. The split between the developed world, especially the EU, and the developing world over the economic impacts and the growing distaste for global government agencies which flout democracy, each conspire to make a binding agreement more difficult to take. The new phenomena of a growing popular backlash against climate change policies, especially in the US, are causing politicians to be cautious. President Obama, for example, is downplaying cap and trade and focusing upon clean energy and energy security and rarely speaks of climate change as the focus for his agenda.
There are a few devices which will make the agreement in 2010 easier to reach. The first is to change the baseline date for calculating how deep to reduce CO2 emissions. Canada has already done this, having moved the baseline date for its policies from 1990 to 2006 – it is seeking a 20% reduction on the 2006 figure by 2020 and 60-70% by 2050. Doing so significantly reduces the amount of CO2 to be taken out of industrial processes, transportation and other economic sectors. The second is to focus on energy and see this as the centre of attention – narrowing targets to the energy sector, fixing a portion of a nations energy supply to come from renewable sources and demanding clean coal, carbon sequestration and carbon taxes on energy. The third big shift will be away from notions of global government and a strong focus on using existing mechanisms, such as the G20, as a basis for coordinating efforts.
Most interestingly, there is a move away from market mechanisms as a basis for carbon reduction. While the EU still favours a cap and trade mechanism, the US is quietly moving away from this and is looking systematically at a simple carbon tax. The White House continues to develop plans for an aggressive global warming bill early in 2010 that will be loaded with new spending on green technology and jobs paid for with tax increases. Democratic lobbyist Steve Elmendorf says the White House focus on deficit reduction could easily kill the cap-and-trade effort. “I think this means cap-and-trade has to go to the backburner,” he said. He also notes that, given the growing unpopularity of climate change talk – Al Gore’s speech was disrupted by chants and protests when he spoke to a small audience of some eight hundred in Florida about the need for strong and decisive action last Saturday - and the fact that 2010 is the year of mid-term elections, he expects modest rather than bold proposals.
The communications industry will go into overdrive to “spin” the Copenhagen political agreement as an important milestone in the work of governments to “stop” climate change. Don’t be fooled. It is really a spin on failure. At three summits this year – the G8, the G20 and the APEC summit – climate change agreements have been weak and nebulous. So will this one. Green lobby groups, funded largely by governments themselves, will rightly see Copenhagen as a failure. When Canadian Prime Minister muses that he may or may not go to Copenhagen, he is right to do so. Since nothing new will emerge, he would be better to spend his time looking at climate change data – he may be very surprised to see the difference between the rhetoric and the facts.