We shouldn't expect a single Copenhagen treaty to solve things

| 16th November 2009
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We've bundled so many issues up together into 'climate change' that we've made a single treaty unworkable. Let's start thinking about a many-sided solution...

Expectations for the Copenhagen climate negotiations have, sadly, been raised far too high. Voices - some sombre, some shrill - have told us it must be a deal ‘to save the planet’ and ‘to protect civilisation as we know it’. That it is ‘the last chance we have to tackle climate change’.

Such an atmosphere is not conducive to calm, considered and realistic negotiating. And it is a task made harder because in recent years so many issues troubling the world have been dumped into the climate change bucket: the loss of biodiversity, the gross inequity in patterns of development, loss of tropical forests, trade restrictions, violation of the rights of indigenous peoples, intellectual property rights, etc. The list seems to grow by the month. We have presented ourselves with a climate change Rubik’s cube puzzle of just too many dimensions.

There will be a modest and symbolic agreement to come out of Copenhagen. Too much political capital has been invested in the process for there not to be one. But much of this agreement will consist of further ‘road maps’ for negotiation, aspirations about retaining global temperature at no more than 2C above pre-industrial level, a welcome to the volunteerism displayed by several of the Parties to the Convention and some small print about specialist working groups and rules of procedure.

But after ‘The Wave’ has swept London, as the frenzy subsides, the hotels of Copenhagen empty and the new year begins, I hope that the yawning gap between well-meaning rhetoric on the one hand and political reality on the other will convince many that we have been going down the wrong path: the risks of climate change cannot be defused through a single multilateral treaty. Just because we designed and delivered a Montreal Protocol for controlling ozone-depleting substances does not mean that a Copenhagen Protocol can be delivered for controlling climate change. It can’t. The parallels between stratospheric ozone depletion and climate change are few; the layers of complexity in the latter are many. 

A solution of the many

Instead, we need to start disaggregating the many interwoven threads which we have stitched together into the banner of climate change; and then to seek out in turn more diverse, less ambitious and more politically tractable means for addressing them. In some cases this may require strong multilateralism; in some cases mini-lateralism or bi-lateralism will work better. 

In other cases we may be better off working outside the nation-state altogether, through specific industrial sectors – such as aviation, marine transport, or motor manufacture – through technology standards or through partnered municipal actions. And we should be making much better use than we currently are of existing protocols, treaties, agreements and programmes in other areas of international co-operation which are already in place and working (at least to some level of achievement). 

Although global climate change is represented in scientific enquiry and simulated inside computer models as a unitary and globalised phenomenon, the social, cultural and political constituents of the drivers and consequences of climate change are far from unitary and far from globalised.  Why should we therefore think we need a single global regime – a universal targets-and-timetables approach - to defuse the risks posed by human-induced climate change?  

What might an alternative fragmented approach to climate change look like in practice? It might mean, for example, that the group of climate warming gases known as the HFCs should be handled by a modified Montreal Protocol; this has been successful for controlling CFCs and HCFCs and it can do likewise for this similar industrial class of gases.

It might mean that greenhouse gas emissions from tropical forest destruction and degradation should be managed through an independent new protocol which does not need to get snarled up in the complexities of reducing industrial emissions. It might mean that the climate-warming agents - methane, nitrous oxide, black soot and carbon dioxide - should each be attended to quite separately. Not only are their sources quite well distinguished, and therefore amenable to regulation and control through different mechanisms, but because of their very different residence times in the atmosphere (from a few weeks to several centuries) their effects on climate are completely different. At the very least we should think of separate frameworks for short-lived and long-lived forcing agents.  

And it might mean that we need to create the deliberative and political space for re-visiting the argument about carbon taxes versus carbon trading. The emergent carbon markets of Europe and the CDM have been abject failures in constraining greenhouse gas emissions. Handing over property rights for the atmosphere to private corporations is not only ideologically contentious and ethically dubious, but it has been executed in such a way that very little downward pressure on emissions has been applied through the subsequent market.

…and whatever happened to making poverty history?

Finally, and most importantly, we need to tackle head-on the elephant in the background – the need for huge redistribution of wealth from North to South. The questions of economic development and human welfare in a world of scandalous inequality have surfaced many times and in different ways since the end of European colonialism: trickle-down economic theory, fair trade movements, overseas aid, structural reform, debt relief, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have all come and, at least for many of them, gone.

This is not about climate change affecting future generations. This is an issue of fundamental social justice and humanitarian welfare here and now. It is recognised in the objectives of the MDGs, but also in the renewed commitment made by the OECD nations at Monterray in 2002: ‘... to make concrete efforts towards the target of 0.7 percent of gross national product (GNP) as overseas development assistance to developing countries’.

Without negotiating new treaties, setting up new funds and new institutions to manage new funds, without arguing over how much and from whom, the single most important step I would like to see taken during 2010, is the honouring of the commitment by these nations to meet their obligation to commit 0.7 percent of GNP into overseas development assistance.  At a stroke, between $100 and $150 billion would be released. This would not solve climate change; nor would it eradicate poverty. But it would be a gesture a hundred times more important for the future of the world than the empty symbolism and political rhetoric that we will unfortunately get at Copenhagen.

Professor Mike Hulme is from the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia, Norwich

Useful links


Lester Brown: 'We shouldn't count on Copenhagen to save us'
Lester Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute and the WorldWatch Institute, on his fears for Copenhagen, genetically modified food and the failure of the media
Why carbon trading cannot work
Carbon trading cannot work. How do we know this? Because economic theory tells us so
Brazil pledges emission cuts in 'political gesture' to rich nations
Brazil will take proposals for voluntary reductions of 38-42 per cent by 2020 to the Copenhagen climate change conference next month, chief of staff says
Why Copenhagen will be crawling with business lobbyists
Is a business presence at Copenhagen crucial or corrosive? Either way, in a few weeks Denmark is going to be up to its eyes in corporate lobbyists...
Carbon trading is a dangerous obsession, says report
Carbon trading schemes are allowing speculators to grow rich but are not delivering the emissions cuts promised, says Friends of the Earth


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