Hitting Reboot – where next for climate after Copenhagen?

Today, the Brookings Institution publishes Hitting Reboot – a new paper from Alex and I reviewing climate policy in the aftermath of Copenhagen.

The picture is a bleak one – there’s no point pretending otherwise. Copenhagen took us only a little further than Bali, despite two years of negotiations. In some crucial aspects, we actually seem further away from a robust and comprehensive climate deal than we were in 2007.

Rather than hitting the brakes, however, we argue that deal-makers need to steer into the skid – upping the level of ambition. Climate isn’t a problem that can simply be put on pause.

Believe the science (and most still do), and you have little choice but to find new ways of bringing countries into some kind of binding agreement to control emissions.

That means finally getting countries to lay all their cards out on the table. Copenhagen failed, in part, because governments were far too slow to level with each other about what they really wanted. They spent two years pussy-footing around – and were then surprised when it proved difficult to engage in Copenhagen’s frenetic last few days.

How can we ever get to a deal when it’s considered perfectly acceptable to talk about rigorous (and often unachievable) targets for 2050 – but a faux pas to talk about the tough decisions and painful trade offs that need to be taken over the next few years if the climate is to be pushed onto any stabilisation trajectory?

That’s why much of our report is about getting back to the basics – taking 2ºC as a starting point, and then building up the blocks that are needed to seize the increasingly slim chance of making that aspiration a reality. Continue reading

Climate Groundhog Day

“This agreement is a vital step forward for the whole world,” Gordon Brown after the Bali climate summit in December 2007.

“This is the first step we are taking towards a green and low carbon future for the world,” Gordon Brown after the Copenhagen climate summit in December 2009.

“A pivotal first step toward an agreement that can address the threat of climate change,” Ban Ki-Moon after the Bali climate summit in December 2007.

“It is a step in the right direction,” Ban Ki-Moon after the Copenhagen climate summit in December 2009.

Copenfailure: a first analysis

So here’s a very rough first analysis of the Copenhagen outcome.

Of the three Copenfailure scenarios David and I outlined, we think this morning’s Copenhagen Accord is closest to a very, very weak version of Bali #2. On that basis, here are 10 initial thoughts on what happened, where we go next, and how countries performed at the summit.

1. Don’t Panic.

2. We need to own up to how weak and ineffective deal-makers have been.

3. We also need to face the fact that the international system for dealing with climate is broken.

4. With this said, as UN Assistant Secretary-General Bob Orr observed in a press conference this morning, the head of governmment level engagement was “the most genuine negotiation I’ve ever seen between leaders”.

5. The main thing deal-makers need to do now remains: be brave, and steer into the skid.

With regard to countries’ positioning:

6. The US is still all about domestic legislation – which is as far away as ever.

7. The EU had a shocking summit, captured for all to see in its exclusion from the closing hours caucus of US, China, India, South Africa and Brazil. The open question of whether any hypothetical deal would have been bad enough for the EU to reject it did nothing whatsoever to enhance EU influence.

8. Appeasing China has failed. Period.

9. Much of the G77 participated in its own shafting – a point seen most clearly in Sudan’s chairmanship of the bloc.

10. But there are some weak signals of fragmentation in the G77 – seen most clearly in the case of the Maldives, which showed real determination in standing up to China.

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.

Scandinavian efficiency goes AWOL

ChinaDialogue’s Isabel Hilton on how to make a critical situation desperate:

Step 1: Take the most ambitious and important world summit ever, invite the press, global civil society, advisors, security men and women, activists, nuns, monks, philosophers and scientists, put them in a conference centre that can only accommodate one-third of them

Step 2: Tell the NGOs that only three out of their list of up to 50 registered participants will be able to get in, and that to do so they need not one, but two passes. Make several thousand of them re-register. Then close the registration over the busiest weekend on Saturday afternoon; take the whole of Sunday off, so none of the new arrivals can register.

Step 3: If you have followed steps 1 and 2 above, you should have a situation of maximum confusion and enormous queues by early Monday morning. If, however, insufficient chaos has been caused, try this: restrict access to the site to one narrow gate through which everyone – registered, unregistered and those requiring re-registration need to pass. Ensure they are thoroughly mixed up, so that even those with valid passes cannot get in because they cannot reach the gate.

That works. At least it worked so well this morning that everyone, from Rajendra Pachauri to a contingent of Turkish negotiators were stranded along with everyone else. 

Though in fairness to the Danes, not sure how many conference centres there are can easily hold 40,000 people. Now if they used a stadium, on the other hand… presto! Every NGO can be in the plenary!

“Just then, the state of British domestic political debate looked a bit shameful”

Last time we caught up with Charlemagne over at the EU heads’ meeting in Brussels, he and his fellow hacks were sniggering about some unfortunate new acronyms. As the summit drew to a close last night, he and the gang were still chuckling away (what a jolly place Brussels sounds to be) – this time at Gordon Brown’s breezy assertion to a joint press conference with the French President that “Nicolas Sarkozy is one of my best friends”.

Amid the general hilarity, though, his concluding observation was interesting:

Mr Sarkozy came across as the bigger man, full stop. At his worst, Mr Sarkozy can be maddening: playing fast and loose with the facts, bullying, cynical and boastful to the point of parody. At his best, he is a politician with a genius for seeing what is important, and detecting the moment for action.

The good Sarkozy came over today. A visiting political reporter from a British television station asked a question. Transferring money to the developing world to help them with climate change might be the right thing to do morally, he said to Mr Brown and Mr Sarkozy. But was it not time to be “honest with voters” about the cost of these measures, and their impact on growth and the economy, he asked, especially at this moment when the markets’ confidence in [Mr Brown’s] economic management was collapsing?

Mr Brown gave a defensive answer about new green services and industries, which would create 400,000 new jobs in Britain. Mr Sarkozy looked at the British reporter as if the man had just coughed up a hairball.

“What is the alternative?” the French president asked. “Think about it. monsieur. What if the richest countries do nothing to help Africa to develop… What if there were no deal at Copenhagen? You think that will not cost our economies dearly? Between Europe and Africa, the Straits of Gibraltar are 12km wide. You think we can leave them in that poverty? You think that won’t cost a lot of money? I’ll tell you what costs money, monsieur: it’s doing nothing. What causes a crisis, is the failure to act.”

In his obsession with costs, the television reporter was no doubt accurately reflecting a good chunk of British public opinion. His question will certainly not have surprised Mr Brown in the least, as was reflected in the prime minister’s reply about the profits to be made from green technology.

I admit that I am not always convinced by French arguments in favour of more public spending. But just then, the state of British domestic political debate looked a bit shameful: small-minded, chiselling, money-obsessed and generally lacking in strategic vision. Mr Sarkozy looked pretty unimpressed, and he had a point.