A rough guide to Copenfailure: conclusion

In the first three parts of this series (1, 2, 3), David and I have explored how Copenhagen might fail; what might lead it to do so; and why some kinds of failure are better than others.  With the summit now into its closing hours, this final post turns to how leaders should respond if the summit really is headed for deadlock.

Right now, the likely outcome of the talks remains shrouded in uncertainty.  All three of the possible scenarios we discussed in Part 1 of the Rough Guide – a Bali 2 political deal without numbers, a Bad Deal with weak numbers, or an out-and-out Car Crash – remain entirely possible. (And let’s not forget that it’s still at least conceivable that the summit could actually succeed – in other words, reach a binding deal which puts the world clearly on track for limiting warming to two degrees C – which would be by far the best case scenario.)

But if, as currently looks more likely, the summit fails to produce a robust deal, then we argue that the most important thing is for policymakers to steer into the skid.

When a car loses grip on the road and begins to slide, the driver’s every instinct is to turn away from the skid to try to control the car. Actually though, what the driver must do is to steer into the skid – or, as driving instructors put it nowadays, “take your feet off both pedals and align your tires with the direction of your intended travel”.

If things start to slide at Copenhagen, the instinct of some policymakers will be settle for whatever deal they think they can reach. It’s a well-honed script; and if, this time tomorrow, you see pro-deal policymakers like the UK’s Ed Miliband doing the rounds of TV news studios saying things like “No, it’s not all we were hoping for – but it is a step in the right direction, and in the end, we mustn’t let the best be the enemy of the good”, then you’ll know that this is what has happened.

Other policymakers will react to a skid by slamming on the brakes (e.g. “This thing is just too complicated to deal with through an international treaty – let’s just all do national policies and see what they add up to in emissions reduction terms”), or indeed by applying more gas (“Two degrees was a total sell-out anyway! When policymakers come back, we have to push them for zero emissions by next Thursday!”).

What advocates of a serious deal should actually do, on the other hand, is – ready? – take feet off both pedals and align the tires with the direction of intended travel.

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For better or for worse, two degrees has become a widely agreed upon reference point. So what policymakers should do at Copenhagen is keep their tires resolutely aligned with two degrees. If what’s on the table at the end of the day is clearly off track for that, they should still keep steering towards it – even if that means refusing to sign the deal.

If pro-deal policymakers – especially the EU – do no better today than merely deferring failure, then they’ll allow themselves to pushed into a defensive posture.  That will make them  look weak, further eroding their (already declining) influence over the process.  Worse, it will undermine the principles that are the essential rationale for an eventual deal. Only by guiding, shaping – and, if necessary, accelerating – breakdown, will champions of a deal have the basis for turning defence back into attack.

True, the best should not be the enemy of the good. But neither should the ever-changing calculus of political possibility lead us to shut our eyes to another crucial test: what’s good enough.  The EU and other champions of two degrees must stick to their guns today.