From tragedy to farce – the COP climate process

Posted on December 8, 2013


The idea that a meaningful climate agreement can be forced upon countries is farcical. We need co-operation on achievable policies

This article was first published in The Guardian

Another COP, another cop-out.

Predictably, COP19 in Warsaw has achieved little. Maybe the biggest achievement is that is has now become abundantly clear that the prospects are now close to zero that a meaningful legally binding, global agreement on carbon emissions will be signed in Paris in 2015.

Of course, some agreement may well be signed to enable all to claim success. But that can only happen if a form of words can be found to make such an agreement largely meaningless. As famously said by Geoffrey Howe, by drawing on the ability to separate words from meaning.

For many years, the COP negotiations have achieved little in spite of all the resources mobilised and the taxpayer money spent. Now, however, they have gone beyond being useless to being actually counter-productive to the cause of mitigating and adapting to climate change. Why?

Negotiations pitched in the framework of achieving legally binding emissions targets were always likely to result in confrontation by pitching one country’s interests against the other. This generates antagonism and defensiveness rather than co-operation.

Many delegations no longer come to these talks armed with constructive suggestions. Rather, some focus on pushing others to make concessions in their own particular interests while others simply want to make sure that nothing gets written that could harm their national interests. The negative impact of this goes beyond the bland statements and paralysis to which we have now become accustomed. It is a framework that generates suspicion, mistrust, antagonism and casting of blame this way and that.

The endless and tiresome public condemnations emerging from environmental groups further increase the negative ambiance and governments’ siege mentality.  All this has been further escalated in Warsaw with ill-advised attempts to try to hold developed countries legally liable for the effects of past emissions. If there ever was an idea designed to irritate and turn un-cooperative countries that were previously helpful, this was a master stroke.

All this anger, mistrust and finger pointing came to a head in Warsaw when a whole gaggle of delegations simply walked out of the talks.

In such a poisonous atmosphere, no meaningful progress is possible. Worse than that, institutions such as the US Congress will, on principle, simply never ratify an agreement that they perceive as having been pushed upon them by other countries. China and Russia will likely take the same attitude. The idea that a meaningful agreement can somehow be forced upon the whole international community is farcical.

A primary issue is that the COP process is focused on the wrong target. There is very little disagreement on the reality of climate change. Neither is there much resistance to the idea that reducing emissions and preparing through adaptation are both desirable goals.

But no government is comfortable with what would be the appropriate policies to achieve these twin goals without compromising their economies or spending billions of non-existing taxpayer funds. It’s not a lack of will that is the problem; it’s a lack of politically and practically achievable ways to achieve these results. In this environment, it is sheer folly to attempt to impose targets without a meaningful road map of how such targets can be practically achieved.

What would be a productive way forward? The first, overwhelming need is not for a legally binding agreement but for an atmosphere of positive co-operation. We can achieve this – over time – by converting these UN-sponsored meetings into conferences of achievement. Government delegations should be invited to share with others what they have done right, how they have done it, what they have learned, and what they are planning to achieve further progress.

Other governments can take whatever they want from these experiences and adapt them to their own circumstances. Small groups of countries whose interests may coincide can, if they wish, form formal alliances to work together to achieve progress. Larger, wealthier countries can offer help and support in technology transfer and financial assistance on a bilateral basis.

These conferences can become deal-making conferences where everyone can take what they wish in an atmosphere that is focused on positive achievement, where nobody is called out as the culprit, and where no attempts are made to hold individual countries’ feet to the fire.

Second, the focus needs to change from emissions targets to devising appropriate and credible policies. In spite of the continued assertions of activists to the contrary, it has been shown time and time again that we currently have neither the technologies nor the social structures nor the policy know-how to convert developed economies quickly to low carbon ones without considerable economic and social cost.

As has been shown in Canada and Australia, over-reach simply results in electoral loss and quick policy U-turns. Neither do developing countries yet have the wherewithal to accommodate their development aspirations using a low carbon path. These meetings would be more productive if they were to focus seriously on the ‘how’ of low carbon economies rather than clamouring for targets that countries will never sign up to simply because they have no idea how they might credibly achieve them.

Finally, these meetings need to be taken out of the hands of scientists, technocrats and activists and handed over to institutions that understand the language, the practicalities and the difficulties of multi-lateral diplomacy. Countries should not be represented by environment ministries that tend to be dominated by technocrats and, as we have seen in Warsaw, simply get axed when they concede too much.

Ministries of foreign affairs, ministries of industry and the economy and overseas development agencies would provide a much more rounded and appropriate skills base. The voice of environmental organisations would be more effective and less disruptive if it were represented by a single, respected agent such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature – a membership organisations that counts all the major environmental NGOs, as well as many government organisations, among its members. A single voice providing constructive input is more effective than an un-coordinated free for all.

The continued march of climate change and its human, natural and economic impacts is a tragedy. The COP process has converted it into a farce. If we are to make progress, we need to dismantle the current poisonous atmosphere of conflict and mistrust and replace it with an atmosphere of co-operation. This can only be achieved by having the right people at the table talking about positive achievement and changing the focus from meaningless targets to exploration of practical and achievable policy innovations.

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