Thursday, 13 December 2012

What was all that climate change stuff people used to go on about?...

By Stephen Spratt

How the world has changed. Do you remember COP 15 in Copenhagen in 2009? For months leading up to the event coverage was everywhere. Celebrities queued up to express confidence that ‘this was the moment’ that politicians would ‘rise to the challenge’. And the politicians said much the same. John Kerry, erstwhile US Presidential candidate, summed up the attitude well:
“We can stop the climate-driven wars of the future. We can keep would-be climate refugees in their homes.  We can keep islands on the map and stop climate-fuelled droughts and storms before they ever start....we have an opportunity to realign the way nations have dealt with each other. By reaching agreement on finance, emission targets, and a transparent system for global action, we will be recognizing globally that the stewardship of the planet and our appetite for resources will be managed in a new way in a new era.”
In stark contrast, this year’s COP* in Doha, which came to an end at the weekend, was so low-key hardly anyone was even aware it was happening. If Senator Kerry’s goals were well on the way to being achieved, this would be understandable. Unfortunately, of course, the opposite is true. Not only have none of these aims been realised, but the scientific evidence, rapidly melting ice-caps, historically unprecedented weather patterns, that kind of thing, gets stronger and stronger. As the need for action grows the prospects of actually seeing any action diminishes at an ever faster rate.

How can we explain this lack of action? 
  1. There is an inevitable fatigue to interminable negotiations that go nowhere. Having marched up the hill of expectation at Copenhagen, many people are no doubt very wary of having their hopes dashed again. 
  2. The gulf between the positions of the different parties is so wide that optimism is difficult to sustain anyway. 
To take just one example, at Copenhagen developed countries promised to transfer $100 billion per year to developing countries by 2020 to fund climate change mitigation and adaptation. The original reason is a simple application of the polluter pays principle: countries that caused the problem should compensate those that suffer from its consequences. While this rationale remains ethically compelling, and developed countries have not (yet?) reneged on the longer-term goal, no progress has yet been made in actually generating this finance, or even deciding where it will come from.

Doha - COP 18 - Dec 8, 2012 009
What we had instead were various attempts to water down the commitment. Given their fiscal deficits, many developed countries are keen to avoid having to tap public coffers. The idea is to get private investment instead, but presumably the private sector will only invest where there is a good financial return, and there is no reason to think that this will be where finance is most needed. The risk is that private finance will go where it was going anyway, leaving non-commercially viable mitigation projects, and virtually all adaptation projects, struggling for resources. These need public funds, and, worryingly, developed countries seem increasingly reluctant to honour their commitments in this regard. Having actually put some money on the table at Doha, the UK remains a notable exception to this trend.

To be fair, one good outcome of Doha was the agreement to establish a mechanism to provide ‘loss and damage’ funding for countries affected by climate change. However, while this was originally described as a form of ‘compensation’ mechanism, negotiators from the EU and US insisted it be ‘rebranded’ as ‘new aid’, from fear they could be held responsible for climate change-related damage in the future, and so leave themselves open to compensation claims. But of course they are responsible, at least in part, as the original commitment to transfer climate finance funds recognised. Again, this does not bode well for the prospects of ever seeing anything like $100 billion of ‘new and additional’ resources being transferred annually from developed to developing countries.

Those seeking reasons to be cheerful are probably wise to avoid these annual jamborees, which have become increasingly depressing. I have recently started a project to understand better the drivers of renewable energy investment in China and India. Despite the intractable state of international negotiations this continues to grow. Understanding why might just provide a chink of light amongst all the doom and gloom.

*IDS has a body of research on Climate Change, much of which touches on the issues raised in this post and at the UN Climate Change Conference – COP18.

Image credit: World Resources Institute/Flickr


Emilie Wilson said...

I agree with you, Stephen, on the distinct lack of media coverage - in the Communications team at IDS we monitor 'development' news on a daily basis, and I have definitely noticed a decline in climate coverage generally (although NYTimes/IHT has somewhat resisted this trend). It could be down to fatigue, as you say, from both climate change advocates and sceptics (or were the sceptics really just an organised lobby to bash down the advocates?). Alternatively, it could be down to the advocates going 'underground' after being badly burnt by 'climate-gate' (the Uni of East Anglia leaked emails quickly followed by the melting Himalayan glaciers 'miscalculation' IPCC fiasco). Or perhaps some 're-branding' is in order? Afterall, we used to talk about the 'green-house effect' and 'global warming'. Maybe the language of "climate change" as run its course and new vocabulary is needed to breathe new life into this urgent issue?

In case, I thought I would share this blog by Connie Hedegaard who has somehow retained her optimism and urges us to remain "intensely focused on the final goal" :

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