Monday, 7 December 2009

The Summit of Ambition

A deal is possible in Copenhagen but it will require the developed world to recognise the claims of the growing economies. Even then, this is just the start

The political problem with climate change is that it veers from the apocalyptic to the trivial. Glaciers are melting, so turn off the red button on the television. It is still possible that discussion at the Copenhagen summit could produce the pragmatic deal that is the intermediate point between idealism and fatalism.
Success will require great ambition. Lord Stern, the author of the Government’s weightiest tome on climate change, has said that global greenhouse gas emissions, currently 47 gigatons, need to be at 44 gigatons by 2020 to get on course to hold the rise in global temperature this century to 2C. Hitting this target would require all the signatory nations to consent to the upper end of their professed targets.
Success will also require enough money on the table — perhaps as much as $100 billion a year by 2030 — to allow China and India to make good on the welcome offers of emissions reductions that they have already made. There is some understandable reluctance in the developing world to jeopardise the chance of prosperity to solve a problem they did not cause. Of course, it is true that if India, China, Brazil and Russia were to grow with the same disregard for the environment as Europe and the United States did, the resultant pollution would be disastrous for the climate. But Copenhagen needs to provide a deal that permits the developing world its ascent to prosperity. The main risk to success is that the developing world rejects the deal or that the mutual suspicion between the United States and China on the verification procedures scuppers the plan.
There is no chance of a treaty that is legally binding from Copenhagen, but it is realistic to expect the publication of a timetable to make it so. The central figure in all of this is the American President. The world is waiting on the United States passing its own domestic Bill, which will not happen until the spring of 2010 at the earliest. However, a legally enforceable agreement could follow within six months of Copenhagen.
Anything less than this set of aims would count as a failure, although it is worth distinguishing between a failure worth having and a complete disaster. That latter possibility is still alive. It is just about possible that no deal will be done at all. The presence of the world’s leaders in Copenhagen does augur well, not because leaders tend to do much at summits but because they tend not to go if a deal is not imminent. More likely than outright disaster is a deal at the lower end of the range of ambition, the collective upshot of which is to do little to reverse the upward trend in emissions and which fails to bind in, to any meaningful extent, the nations growing at the most rapid rates. It would be difficult for the Government to hail such an agreement as a success, but foolish to turn it away.
Of course, even if Copenhagen yields the best possible outcome, it is but the beginning of the rocky road. An agreement to cut emissions is not the same as doing so. But that does not mean a deal should be met with cynicism. International agreements of this kind are best seen as what the social psychologist Avna Offer calls a “commitment device”. It is the international treaty version of the note to self — remember to invent sustainable technologies. Copenhagen could be a signal that there is good money in clean technology. It can help to make the market.
Because, in the end, it is by doing things differently rather than by doing fewer things that we will reverse the trajectory of climate change. There is no good reason not to reduce domestic waste or to desist from lighting empty rooms, but better behaviour at home does not portend a sustainable future for the planet. A credible deal with India and China just might.