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COP15:When is an agreement not an agreement?

aftermath_of_cop15_largeIn an article for the December/January issue of Diplomat, published just before the UN’s Copenhagen conference on climate change, I listed 10 things to look for in any agreement that might emerge from the summit. But no agreement was ever reached. How, after so much hype and preparation, could the largest ever meeting of world leaders – over 120 of them, all presumably wanting to share in the glory of this historic moment – turn into such an embarrassing fiasco? In November 2010 the circus will pitch up in Mexico City, for COP16. In this article I will focus on how the Copenhagen Accord affects the chances of arriving at a meaningful agreement in Mexico, but first let’s have a look at the (short) document itself.

The Accord covers many of the key principles involved in the climate change debate, but crucially imposes no obligations – legally binding or otherwise – on any nation to do anything to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by any specified amount by any specified time. It refers loosely to the target, now largely regarded as unachievable, of limiting the rise in average temperature to 2°C. It also states explicitly that for developing countries economic development and poverty eradication are greater priorities than reducing their GHG emissions.

The provenance of the Accord tells the story of the Copenhagen fiasco.  With no agreement in sight and the Danish hosts apparently suffering a paralysis of leadership, heads of state broke into separate groups. At a meeting of the BASIC group (China, India, Brazil and South Africa) a text was under discussion when President Barack Obama reportedly gate-crashed the meeting and closed a deal which he then presented to a press conference as a fait accompli – before it had been agreed to by anyone outside that small-but-powerful group. Unsurprisingly, this ‘agreement’ was greeted less than enthusiastically by the vast majority of other leaders, but since it was by that stage the only game in town – and importantly had the backing of the US and China – the other leaders reluctantly fell into step. The EU, hitherto the champions of change, and the G77 developing nations had all been marginalised.

So where are we after Copenhagen? The extent of the gulf between nations can be gauged from the range of their reactions. Xie Zhenhua, head of China’s delegation, declared soon afterward that the ‘meeting has had a positive result; everyone should be happy. After negotiations both sides have managed to preserve their bottom line. For the Chinese this was our sovereignty and our national interest.’ But Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping, head of the G77 (which now comprises some 130 developing nations), labelled the Accord ‘a suicide pact, an incineration pact in order to maintain the economic dominance of a few countries. It is a solution based on values, the very same values … that funnelled six million people in Europe into furnaces.’ In the West there were some thinly veiled attempts at putting a positive spin on the outcome, with Obama talking of a ‘meaningful and unprecedented breakthrough’ and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown consoling that at least ‘We’ve made a start.’ Other European leaders, meanwhile, lamented the lack of a binding agreement and expressed concern about how much remains to be done. Among the NGOs, Nnimmo Bassey of Friends of the Earth called the Accord ‘an abject failure’, while John Sauven of Greenpeace declared Copenhagen to be a ‘crime scene with the guilty … fleeing to the airport’, bemoaning leaders’ inability to look ‘beyond their own narrow self-interest’.

Why is it that after 20 years of negotiations – with the majority of scientists saying that global GHG emissions must peak by around 2015 and thereafter fall sharply if we are to avert catastrophe – we are still so far from any kind of settlement, with annual emissions now 30 per cent higher than they were in 1990? The reasons for this failure are to be found in both the nature of the problem and the political structure of the international community.

Climate change has been dubbed a ‘wicked’ problem. ‘Wicked’ problems are distinguished from ‘tame’ ones by their complexity, and the difference between the two is perhaps best illustrated by contrasting climate change with the successful elimination of ozone-depleting substances consequent to the 1987 Montreal Protocol. The ozone-depleting chemicals were manufactured in a handful of countries by a relatively small number of corporations, even though they found their way into countless consumer products (most commonly aerosol cans and refrigerators) throughout the world. By the time the ozone problem was understood, substitutes were already available. The solution to the problem was therefore straightforward: require manufacturers to replace old, harmful chemicals with new, benign ones. Not many parties involved. A clear link between removing the harmful chemicals and the resolution of the problem. Throw some money at it; give manufacturers in developing countries a little more time to make the change. Problem solved.

Climate change, unfortunately, shares none of these characteristics, save that we do know which gases are harmful. But most of those gases are also vital to life and so cannot simply be eliminated. The processes that emit them are part of the daily routine of every living creature; moreover, they are at the heart of economic growth – indeed it would be no exaggeration to say that our civilisation currently depends on the emission of these gases. Any scheme for reducing GHG emissions would entail long transition periods, high costs and uncertain outcomes, and would affect every person and enterprise on the planet. These are the features that make climate change a wicked problem.

Techniques for dealing with wicked problems involve trying out multiple solutions simultaneously, closely monitoring those solutions’ costs and effectiveness and quickly upgrading or abandoning them according to the evidence that emerges. Sadly, this is not the reality of international relations, in which ponderous processes take years to creep forward. Participants defend national rather than global priorities and cling to existing agreements even where these, as in the case of the Kyoto Protocol, have been demonstrably ineffective.

The second dimension of the problem is the structure of the global body politic. There is a centuries-old tradition of making bi- and multi-lateral treaties. In all such treaties, except perhaps those dealing with total surrender after a crushing military defeat, each nation understandably (and quite rightly) pursues its own self-interest with a view to improving the lot of its citizens. At no time in history, however, has an international negotiation required world leaders to weigh a threat to life-as-we-know-it on the entire planet against national concerns of security and economic growth. What thought has China for the global picture when its declared ‘bottom line’ is its sovereignty and national interest? What evidence is there that the USA, by offering derisorily low GHG reduction targets, is even remotely considering a sufficient moderation of its disproportionately high carbon-consuming lifestyle?

The key to success in any future climate change negotiations remains with the US and the BASIC countries. However, if on the one hand China continues to insist – as a precursor to any agreement – on getting the technology transfers it needs and being allowed to grow its economy at its own pace, and on the other the US insists on having the same mitigation pathway as China, it is very difficult to see how GHG reductions could be enforced over a timescale that would make an appreciable dent in the progress of global warming.

What makes the outlook so bleak is that national responses to climate change have been constructed principally in economic terms, especially by the USA and the BASIC group. These governments are rightly concerned for the future economic welfare of their citizens, and from an economic perspective their arguments make a great deal of sense. But the threat of climate change surely transcends economic self-interest. If global GDP continues to grow at the same average rate as during the past 50 years, then by 2050 it will be four times what it is today. But scientists are advising a 50 per cent reduction in GHG emissions by then – no one has yet convincingly explained how it will be possible to quadruple consumption and simultaneously halve GHG emissions over a period as short as 40 years.

For climate scientists, climate change is about the survival of civilisation itself, not merely preserving economic growth. So long as this wicked problem is shoe-horned into a primarily economic analysis, any ‘solutions’ that emerge will be insufficient. Kyoto and ‘Son of Kyoto’ are the wrong tools for the job, but hopefully the current political momentum might yet produce an agreement in Mexico. The emergence of the BASIC group is a positive development, and no doubt the EU and the G77 will recover their influence, which was lost in the chaos of Copenhagen. Still, any agreement that emerges will almost certainly be as ineffective as the Kyoto Protocol, and by that time we will have dug the hole even deeper – maybe too deep for us to escape from. This is largely a man-made problem; now we must hope that it is amenable to a man-made solution. If the rhetoric acknowledging our supposed obligations to future generations is to amount to more than just rhetoric, nations and their leaders must make a radical shift away from narrow self-interest and toward a palpable concern for the biosphere in all its diversity and wonder.


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