Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


Copenhagen Concensus Doesn´t Guarantee The Right Changes
Corriere della Sera - December 7th 2009

The Copenhagen conference on climate change, which opens next Monday, December 7th, is going to be difficult to evaluate—perhaps as difficult as is climate science itself. We already know that no new treaty will be agreed at the meeting, no full successor to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, with its supposedly binding commitments by signatory countries to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases. There will just be a “political agreement”, which aims to provide a framework for negotiations over a real treaty at some point during 2010. But will that agreement be the right one, from the point of view of reducing the dangers from climate change without destroying the world economy? It depends which question you ask.

            If your question is whether a political agreement in Copenhagen will pave the way to a treaty that meets the goals set down recently by the International Energy Agency, namely of cutting greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently by 2030 to give us a chance of limiting the rise in the global average temperature during the 21st century to about 2 degrees Celsius, then the answer is no. The promises made in advance of the summit, by the European Union, the United States, China and Japan, among many others, would not be enough to achieve that. The science is uncertain, and the predictive models even more uncertain, so the IEA’s goal is really just an educated guess. No one actually knows what is necessary to limit the temperature rise, as the war of words between global warming sceptics and advocates over the e-mail scandal at Britain’s University of East Anglia has shown. The science is not as settled as advocates claim, but that doesn’t mean that nothing needs to be done. Nevertheless, the Copenhagen deal will not be as ambitious as the IEA proposes it should be.

            Yet this may well be the wrong question. The world is just emerging from a harsh recession. Until now, there has been precious little global agreement on the need to act to mitigate climate change: neither America nor Australia, two of the biggest carbon dioxide emitters, ratified the Kyoto Protocol (Australia finally did so in December 2007, when it changed government), and neither China nor India seemed willing to make any commitments under a successor treaty. Given that China, India and other emerging economies are now accounting for most of the growth in emissions, their participation is essential if a deal is to gain political support in America and Europe. So the right question could be whether this unfavourable political atmosphere has finally changed. The answer is that it has, and that Copenhagen will confirm it.

            The proposal that President Barack Obama will deliver in Copenhagen, now to be on a visit at the end of the summit rather than, as before, on his way to collect his Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, will still neither be adequate nor convincing. America’s offer of a 17% cut in emissions by 2020, from 2005 levels, is far less than the EU’s proposal. The American Congress will not even consider the bill, named Waxman-Markey after its congressional initiators, until the spring of next year. Even so, this feeble proposal is revolutionary compared with the attitude of the Bush administration. And it does appear to represent a genuine change of public opinion as well.

Meanwhile China has been extremely keen to show its green credentials, by announcing plans to reduce the carbon-intensity of each unit of GDP by 40% by 2020. China’s promise also offers less than it appears. Even assuming the Chinese authorities succeed in carrying it out, China’s economic growth rate may well be so fast that its absolute level of carbon emissions could still double between now and 2020.

Even so, this all represents considerable progress. With Chinese participation and some American commitment, a treaty during 2010 will be possible. At last, there is plainly political agreement that the world needs to act, and to act together. Given that this problem of climate change is one for the very long term, in which both the science and the computer-based forecasts are highly uncertain, it makes little sense to act in a dramatic and drastic way—even if the political will could be found to do so. Copenhagen will help, and then more progress can be made next year. Yet even this optimistic conclusion leaves to one side a third question: how best to fulfill these promises? That is, in fact, the hardest question of all to answer (my answer, a high carbon tax to encourage switching to other energy sources, gathers little political support). If Copenhagen were to produce a consensus on that question, that would be progress indeed. But somehow I doubt that it will.




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