Monday, November 23, 2009

Copenhagen for Dummies

The key negotiations at Copenhagen will focus on some very strategic responses to the perceived threat of climate change.

The first is to reduce carbon emissions. The idea is that there is a global carbon budget and that countries, aiming to secure a reduction from 390 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million, must agree to CO2 reductions of 20-30% on 1990 levels by 2020 and 75-80% by 2050 so as to meet the global carbon budget. What the summit was meant to achieve were binding multilateral agreements on the size of these CO2 reductions.

The second is to agree to limit the warming of the earth to no more than 2 degrees C by 2099. In the last century, the earth warmed 0.6 degrees but the anxiety is that the planet could warm faster if greenhouse gasses are not constrained and deforestation continues. CO2 reductions, reforestation and a switch to green energy and green technologies are seen as vital to constraining the warming trend.

The third is to create a fund to support developing countries in their adaptation to CO2 reduction. The EU has suggested that this fund needs to be at least $100 billion each year for the foreseeable future. Others are suggesting that this fund is too modest and propose a figure closer to $1 trillion. The negotiations will be especially difficult on this matter.

The fourth is to agree to transfer technologies and expertise freely around the world to accelerate the adoption of clean energy and sustainable technologies globally. While some of the funds targeted for developing countries may be used for this purpose, it is also a matter of easing access to patents and intellectual property.

The final component of the agreement is the establishment of an international governing body – what some are calling a global government agency – to monitor compliance and intervene where necessary directly so as to secure the Copenhagen objectives. While there are real issues of sovereignty here, the framework of the IMF and the World Bank are used as models for this new organization.

These are the five building blocks of the Copenhagen conversation, now due in just two weeks. There appears to be a variety of efforts to broker more than a political pledge at the summit. Several world leaders, including Gordon Brown the British Prime Minister, plan to be there. The EU is particularly anxious to secure a binding agreement, having made strong commitments to CO2 reductions and have strong concerns about the energy security of the twenty seven nations.

Several factors will make reaching an agreement difficult. The first is that the US is far from being able to make firm commitments, the Senate having failed to pass a climate change bill. Any offer on emissions or a development fund by the US will be conditional. The second factor is a strong disagreement between the developed nations and the developing nations about the economic impact of CO2 reductions on economic growth and the need for these economies to develop so as to lift more people out of poverty. There has been no movement on these differences for several months and it is likely to lead to a failure to agree on CO2 emissions reduction targets.

The third factor is the issue of sovereignty and the role of the multilateral agency in monitoring and enforcing the treaty to be agreed in Copenhagen. This will be a delicate issue and sensitive, especially for the US and several major economies. However, there are successful multilateral agencies with powers of intervention which can be used as models. The US Senate will watch this aspect of the negotiations especially carefully, especially given that the republican party has already been sensitized to this issue by a variety of right wing commentators.

The fourth factor is the role of the sceptics. They have been very effective in casting doubt on the validity of computer projections, on showing that the earth has been cooling since 1998 (a fact accepted by the Hadley Centre, a leading climate change science unit attached to the UK’s Meteorological Office) and on breaking down the idea that there is a scientific consensus, which there clearly is not. They have had a powerful influence on public opinion, especially in the US and Australia, which in turn affects that political context of these negotiations.

During the last month strong attempts have been made to downplay Copenhagen, but in the last five days a more optimistic note is being presented. Some kind of deal, albeit not the deal the climate change scientists and advocacy groups say is needed, could still be possible. Much will depend on the US and China and how the tension between the developed economies and the developing economies is resolved. Whatever happens, it will be a difficult negotiation.

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