DISCUSSION Nopenhagen – What Happened?

by Yolanda Villafuerte _______30th December 2009
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Well, so much for ‘Hopenhagen’ – the idea that the Copenhagen climate talks would lead to a new treaty on climate change and usher in a bright new green dawn. Despite all the hope and energy invested in it, the event fell way short of what had been expected. So what happened? And what next?

What happened? 

All the world’s most powerful leaders could muster after two weeks of wrangling and two years of build-up was a very thin ‘accord’. Much was made of the fact that they agreed to a goal of holding the increase in global temperature below 2C. However this is an objective which has long been widely accepted as conventional wisdom by many governments and organisations.

Developed countries are going to make pledges to cut emissions by 2020 – but choosing the numbers themselves and with no new penalties for non compliance. Developing and emerging economies are committed to unspecified ‘mitigation actions .. in the context of sustainable development’.

The participants could not even agree on a goal to halve global emissions by 2050, which has been accepted by the G8 and long seen by scientists as a basic pre-requisite for a deal. 

Also missing were the widely discussed targets for developed countries to cut emissions 25-40% by 2020. Neither is there any mention of a target year for emissions to peak – which scientists say should be 2015 if the temperature rise is to stay within 2C.

These numbers had all been part of a widely discussed plan of action based on the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  That plan should have been the starting point for the agreement, with the new substance consisting of national targets and mechanisms to achieve them through international co-operation. Instead what should have been the foundation of the deal wasn’t even there.

Oddly, one of the mechanisms to achieve the non-targets was there. This was a pledge that developed countries would provide developing countries with $30bn to fight climate change between 2010 and 2012 – $10bn a year – and a goal – not a promise mind – of raising $100bn for the same purpose annually by 2020.   It’s a start but compare that with the $500bn a year the World Economic Forum says is needed for green investment worldwide – or with the hundreds of billions spent bailing out banks.

For two main players, the US and China, one of the key elements was China’s agreement to monitor, report and verify its greenhouse gas reductions – albeit that the commitment to them is itself voluntary and vague. This is very significant for Obama as Chinese openness about emissions has been a major issue in Congress. The reaction to Copenhagen in the US has been more upbeat as the Chinese concession is seen as a platform for Obama to get his cap-and-trade bill approved. The real issue with Copenhagen may indeed be the prosaic one that Obama was doing health reform and Afghanistan this year while saving the world is in his diary for 2010.

However, as Copenhagen showed, Obama cannot deliver alone and the fact remains that the event was a shocking letdown. Those who have worked long hours in good faith for many years to try to shape an agreement, such as the EU and UK’s officials, many of the developing country leaders, and Yvo de Boer, the Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, must be feeling traumatised and angry.

What next?

The Copenhagen event provided one service though. It showed up graphically what is wrong with the way the world is responding to climate change. In Tomorrow’s Company we published a report in mid-2009, Tomorrow’s Climate, highlighting the shortcomings of the institutions and process. For example we noted that the IPCC and UNFCCC operate on an annual budget that equates to the price of one corporate jet. Copenhagen brought these issues painfully into the open and showed what needs to be  fixed in 2010.

A fit-for-purpose process: The title says it all – ‘The Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’. This is a 19th century diplomatic construct trying to solve a complex 21st century problem. No reflection on the individuals involved, but the system of the IPCC and UNFCCC needs to be upgraded to a streamlined, fit-for-purpose solution. The international negotiations need to become much more efficient, with full time teams of negotiators reporting back to their constituencies rather a travelling circus of set piece events. A build-up such as Copenhagen had should not happen without a great deal agreed in advance.

Relationship-building: Relationships count for a lot in situations like this. Expecting Obama and Wen Jiabao to turn up for one day and agree a deal was crazy. It was no surprise that there were hash words and offence was taken, using up precious hours. It takes time to build relationships, especially between people from different backgrounds and cultures.

Behind the scenes, time needs to be invested in creating common cause between the very different actors on the climate stage. There is a particularly complex situation to resolve with China and India, who in the eyes of the UNFCCC are ‘developing countries’ yet who are now major polluters and major economic players, with interests far removed from Mali or the Maldives. They need to be provided with funding and technology, but there are delicate diplomatic tasks involved in getting OECD countries to come up with the resources and in enabling China and India to accept them.

Access to new science:  Ministers have been working on the basis of the IPCC’s 2007 report, in turn based on science from the previous decade. But today’s emerging science is pointing to the alarming risks of feedbacks in the climate system that may trigger runaway warming, such as accelerating melting of Arctic ice. The effect of this is that the true scale of the threat is not looming over the conference hall, the media coverage and the watching public as it should be. The IPCC’s heavyweight reports every seven years need to be supplemented by real time advice from expert assessors.

An information hub: Information on science, emissions, policies, technologies and investment needs to be collated, presented and acted on in a clear, transparent way. This requires a total overhaul of the processes and systems currently used by the IPCC and UNFCCC and the ad hoc manner in which data is collected and managed.

Clear communications: The most vital task of all. Had the public in Europe, North America and Japan, let alone China and India, actually ‘got it’, the result at Copenhagen would have been utterly different. Outright scepticism is growing, and more depressingly, even those citizens who accept climate change is real do not see it as a priority. This is a failure of politicians, NGOs and media. But someone has to take a lead soon in setting out the facts more compellingly than they have been set out before.

Post-Copenhagen, there have been calls for reform of the institutions and an admission from the UN that things must change. From Tomorrow’s Company’s perspective, we are urging that this should follow the model of the ‘E-mission Control’ centre we have proposed for some time, bringing together all of these functions or co-ordination and communications.

It would have to be ultimately governed at UN level, but would draw its energy and capability from contributions of financial and human resources from business, governments, NGOs and academia.

The input of business would be vital here. Global businesses know how to manage complex multi-billion projects on time and on schedule. They are practised at relationship building because they are at home in many cultures. They handle data and information professionally. They have made a rigorous business discipline out of risk management. And they know how to reach the public.  Their capabilities, deployed within a framework for which the UN and politicians take accountability, might break the logjams.

One snag – it’s not their job. Progressive businesses have already done more than compliance requires by cutting emissions and encouraging consumers to make green choices. Nevertheless, it may be that only powerful businesses have the capabilities to unravel and professionalise the tangled mess that international efforts to overcome climate change have become. They also have a powerful motivation as they need certainty about the regulatory framework in order to decide whether to invest in low-carbon assets and products. .

For those who chose to make a contribution, it would be something bigger than the day job. It would be the ultimate act of corporate responsibility and it would secure the companies involved a place in history.

David Vigar authored Tomorrow’s Company’s report on global warming and business, Tomorrow’s Climate: Beyond Peak Carbon.

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