Sunday, December 20, 2009

A New Approach to Climate Change Negotiations

Just six months ago, the Copenhagen Climate Change summit was being regarded as a key moment in history – the moment when world leaders would sign up to a new agreement which would begin the seriois work of reducing CO2 emissions and decarbonizing the global economy. Phrases like “a tipping point” and “a pivotal moment for mankinf” were commonly used to refer to the summit.

Noting that Copenhagen was meant to be the final stage of a two year process and that there had been many meetimgs of the parties in the two year negotiating period, the design of the Copenhagen process was intended to finalize a document, develop action plans and have world leaders sign up to the commitments made by their negotiators on the last day. The design was predicated on the idea, developed by the Danish hosts, that there was already alignment on the key principles, and a draft agreement was submitted early in the proceedings.

It soon became clear that it was a disaster. Of the two hundred and ten statements in the draft agreement, one hundred and ninety two were in dispute by the third day of the summit. After this, thing got worse rather than better. Unlike other summits, the G20 nations found that they were no longer in control of the agenda or the process. African states, small island states and the least developed countries stood up for themselves and challenged the basics of the agreement. They refused to be brow beated by powerful nations – they stood their ground. At one point, five competing draft agreements were ciculating and different factions were in or out of the process. Many seasoned journalists covering the summit made clear that they had never seen anything like it – chaos, confusion, despair.

At the end of the summit, amid more shambles and discord, the summit ended without an agreement. The agreement now been spun by some is in fact an agreement between five of the one hundred and ninety two nations present at the summit. These five nations – the worlds biggest polluters and South Africa – see the agreement as a statement of intent. It is not binding, not enforecable and has many conditions attached. The summit itself chose to note it rather than reject it – there was no possibility of acceptance.

So what now? As far as the UN is concerned, it is busy organizing the next summit for Mexico in December 2010. They will try again to secure an agreement on CO2 emission reductions, funds for developing nations, technology transfer and intellectual property and the verification and governance mechanisms required to enforce what they hope will be a legally binding agreement. Talks have failed, so let us have more talks is the mantra.

Others, like Bjorn Lomberg, the skeptial environmentalist, are suggesting that its is time to change the fundamental focus for negotiations. Rather than focus on a global, legally binding agreement on CO2 emisisions, he suggests that the focus should be on technology and mitigation efforts. Rather than live out the fantasy of “stopping climate change”, we should instead focus at the international level on dealing with the effects of climate change, whileat the same time reducing emissions through national and bilateral agreements. He is not saying “don’t cut emissions”, but rather he is promoting the idea that climate change is something that has to be managed through investments in innovative technology and adaptation.

This is an unpopular view, sincemany have bought the fantasy that action now can stop climate change. The religious belief in CO2 reduction as mankinds only chocie is now invested in so heavily, in more ways than one, that shifting the basis for the conversation is politically and economically difficult. Nonethless, it is what it needs to happen if the world is to make progress.

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