Climate change and the complex complications of the Copenhagen COP

The Copenhagen climate conference in December is crucial for the future well being of the vast majority of humanity alive today and the billions yet to be born.  Its prospects are not good, however, and it is beset by multi-layered complexities. There needs to be much more political energy going into it now in order to achieve anything that can be politely called success in three months time. 

Simple, no?

The task of the Copenhagen meeting – the 15th Conference of Parties (COP) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – is to come up with the next global deal on mitigating global warming and responding to climate change. The arguments around this issue have been thoroughly aired by now. There is a scientific near-consensus about what is happening to the global climate and the necessity to limit global warming. The few scientists who reject the consensus get an inordinate amount of coverage fuelled by big money interests because the message is a tough one: business as usual will be the ruin of us.

That’s simple enough, isn’t it? All that’s left, surely, is to keep piling up the evidence until the argument is won even more than it’s won already and then to bring in the regulations that penalise high carbon emissions and reward low emissions. What’s complicated?

Not just slow – actually backward

Yet the UNFCCC negotiations are reportedly making infinitesimal progress. The optimists say the talks are moving at a snail’s pace; the pessimists say they are stalled, and among their ranks should be counted UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. He is hosting a UN summit next week that is an occasion when additional political energy could be injected and a greater sense of urgency generated. But don’t count on it. It is public political pressure in a few countries that will count the most for getting a result in Copenhagen.

And what would constitute a result? What constitutes success in this context?

Last year, especially when looking forward to a new US administration getting stuck in, “success” meant a new agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, an agreement that, basing itself on a difficult but achievable target (say, global mean temperature rise of no more than 2C above pre-industrial levels), and recognising that the rich world did almost all the damage while the poor countries will bear the brunt of the ensuing problems, would work out who has to cut carbon emissions by how much, and design a series of schemes: one to encourage and reward low carbon emissions, one to monitor implementation and progress, one to finance adaptation to the consequences of the climate change that is already inevitable because of previous emissions.

Everybody acknowledged this would be complicated because of the different needs as well as views of some of the major players, but following the Bali COP in December 2007, there was a commitment from the developed and developing countries alike to get the deal done.

Today, expectations have been managed downwards. Agreement on the basic principles so there are only details to fill in after Copenhagen would now be regarded as outstanding success. Unless the UN summit next week registers a really big step forwards, that kind of success will be beyond most knowledgeable commentators’ dreams. At this rate, by the time we get to Copenhagen, agreement on what the basic issues are will look like success.

Seen in this light, progress this year has not just been slow but actually in reverse.

The three complications

There are three levels of complexity (at least three) and they are over-layered on each other, each one making the other more difficult to resolve – the problems in the negotiation, the politics of getting agreement, and the meta-problem of irreducible uncertainty in this whole issue.

1. The negotiation itself The talks themselves are very complex and there are very few people who understand how they all fit together. There are four big headings:

  1. Ambitious targets for developed countries (so-called Annex 1 countries from the Kyoto Protocol) to reduce their carbon emissions – how ambitious, how fast and achieved by what mechanism?
  2. Targets for the major developing countries (such as China, India, Brazil) – ditto 1.
  3. The finance package to support mitigation and adaptation in developing countries – how big, how generated, and with disbursement under whose control?
  4. The governance arrangements – how to handle the money, how to monitor and verify, what sanctions if any for non-compliance?

But to put it into these four neat headings really understates the complexity for several reasons:

  1. Each component interacts with all the others, which means the negotiators have to deal with a series of inter-locking trade-offs; for that reason alone, this whole thing is not going to be resolved simply through more and more negotiation – it has to have a high level political resolution and that requires somebody or bodies to stand up and offer leadership.
  2. What will be the legal form of the agreement? That is not clear yet. Will it be a full treaty or a decision of the Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC. If there is a treaty, will that cover everything that is agreed? Negotiators are currently following more than one track. Does that mean there will be two treaties in the end?
  3. Issues are being negotiated without positions being sorted out; for example, the EU has yet to agree a position on the finance package.*

2. The politics of agreement To understand this level, simply ask yourself what happens if the US deems itself unable to join in the eventual agreement. The issue is not that this is a likely outcome but that it is a spectre that hangs there because the US never signed up to Kyoto; the progress it has registered towards reducing carbon emissions has been achieved at state level, not Federal.

It’s evident that Obama is a president who wants to be environmentally responsible but he is not prepared to get ahead of opinion in Congress. Today, Senate majority leader Harry Reid was quoted as saying that this is not the year for major initiatives on climate change, that health service reform will dominate the agenda in the autumn and early winter.

There are already signs of a rift between the US and some of the EU countries over negotiating positions and tactics. This should not be exaggerated for EU governments will almost certainly not be ready to confront the US or ignore it and go ahead alone. But if that creates a coalition of rich countries balancing on a fulcrum set by the US position, and if that position is watered down so as not to lose support in Congress, especially if health reform continues to go badly for Obama and divide the Democrats, then the risk is that the poorest developing countries will essentially bail out on Copenhagen.

And that would torpedo agreement.

It is perfectly imaginable that the EU’s and the poorer developing countries’ positions could be aligned adequately for agreement, and with that also India’s, as long as China remained engaged, which it would if the US is part of the process, which the current background briefings and insider gossip seem to indicate won’t happen if the EU’s position prevails, so the EU’s position will change and de-align from the poorer developing countries, so…

All the cards have to be in place or the house will come tumbling down.

3. The element of uncertainty And what makes that so complicated is that the near-consensus among scientists about global warming does not eliminate significant uncertainty about exactly what will happen, where and approximately when. Two Guardian columnists have just had a good solid go at climate deniers; the articles yesterday and today by George Monbiot and Jonathan Freedland are fine polemics (and the one by Monbiot, who normally irritates me unbearably with his querulous piety, is highly recommended as a really convincing debunking of the way that climate deniers attack and move on, never bothering to rectify their own egregious scientific errors).

But what the deniers feed on is that there genuinely is uncertainty about the consequences of global warming, not in broad terms but nonetheless on a significant scale.

Especially in this age of spin and of the presidential political persona, even in non-presidential electoral systems like the UK’s, we have got used to politics being based on clarity and certainty. By contrast, the field of climate change is full of nuance and uncertainty.

It shouldn’t be beyond politically thoughtful and intellectually mature people to pick their way through the nuances and uncertainties and to come to a position that is not a lot more sophisticated than being appropriately cautious. But the presence of nuances and uncertainties on the way towards that position makes it extremely easy to get attention if you peddle certainties and simple statements. Let’s be honest, many people who believe passionately in the importance of acknowledging global warming and doing something about climate change have become at one time or another so frustrated that they have simplified arguments and issues to get the point across. Hardly a surprise then that those on the other side of the argument have done pretty much the same.


Yes, that is what it needs. To make the case that the risks are such that we should be cautious. To get this point across in the US Congress and to the leaders of the developing countries. And on the basis of shared interest albeit differentiated responsibility, work out the principles of agreement in time for Copenhagen. It needs leadership. That’s all.


* UPDATE 18 September: As it turned out, the day after I posted this, the EU agreed a few things about finance (statement and report). The context was the informal meeting of government leaders preparing for the imminent G-20 summit in Pittsburgh. The closing statement is relatively brief – less than seven pages of double spaced text, 29 paragraphs in all. Just under a quarter of the document is devoted to climate. The three key elements are

  1. The total additional costs for mitigating global warming and adapting to climate change in developing countries will be about €100 billion annually by 2020; this is a European Commission figure and is considerably below the estimates published by the International Institute of Environment and Development in August (see my post of 28 August).
  2. This total will be met through a combination of domestic finance (i.e., the part the developing countries pay for), financing gained from the carbon market (presumably a levy on carbon-trading), and international support by donor governments; there is no clarification as to which form of carbon-market the EU prefers, an important issue in view of the dysfunctionality of the Clean Development Mechanism which currently administers carbon-trading finance.
  3. Kick-start funding will be required before the full financial architecture is in place; this will amount to about €5-7 billion a year in 2010-2012; though the statement describes the figure as an estimate by the European Commission of what is needed, it’s not clear whether they really mean is that this is what can probably be afforded.

This is not really a full package but it is getting there and it is probably about as informative as you could expect governments to be about common negotiating positions.

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