17 February, 2010

Climate Change 2010: In search of a realistic agenda

Sergio Abranches
Are we are moving backwards on climate change policy? The energy law in the US seems farther away today than at year end. IPCC seems to be at bay. Deniers seem to be having their heyday. The social movement seems to be too quiet. Support to the Copenhagen Accord has been at the best lukewarm. The countries pledges fall short of the 2oC target, they point to a 3.5oC scenario.Are we really losing ground? Or are we prisoners of a short-term view based on appearance only? Are we dealing with real trends or just bumps on the road ahead?

There is no serious regress on climate change politics. What we see is just a reiteration of the stop-and-go that characterizes complex decision-making settings. The climate change decision-making environment is almost as complex as the climate system itself. It conforms to what I’ve called the Asimov Paradox. In brief: with so many stakeholders, veto players and decision-makers involved, there are two ways to reach a sound and sufficient global deal. Either it gets a really massive amount of support and commitment, or building meaningful consensus will take a very long span of time. So, we’ve got to keep struggling to get enough support to trigger the needed political change. We don’t have time to spare. Meanwhile we should invest on other battlefronts of the climate change challenge, while we continue aiming at achieving a global climate change policy. We must achieve an effective curb on carbon emissions sooner than later, through local initiatives before we get to a binding global accord.

There is a well financed and well orchestrated political campaign by climate deniers and fossil lobbies to discredit the IPCC and climate science. The IPCC has made some important mistakes that must be adequately addressed. It is, perhaps, time for a formal “peer review” of IPCC’s present format and procedures. It surely needs change. If IPCC could move to a new stage of its institutional life, generating more transparent, error-free scientific assessments at shorter intervals and with less political interference, that could very much help the search for a global climate change policy framework. Finally, it also has a leadership problem. A new chair could bring fresh ideas; perhaps more scientific authority; and work to better balance science and politics. The present IPCC chair won’t likely recover from the loss of confidence and legitimacy.

Is the social movement too quiet? I guess not. All major NGO’s are busy evaluating what happened last year, and designing their new short and long-term strategies. They’ve probably had their best results ever in 2009 on mobilization, visibility, and influence. Yet COP15 was probably, also, their major frustration ever. They surely have some strategic review and redesign of their own to do. They’ll need a new agenda for action. But they should do it as fast and possible, to overcome frustration, and start seriously confronting the deniers’s campaign against climate change science, policy and politics.

We are not really loosing ground, but the outcome of the Copenhagen Summit has had a depressing effect on environmentalists, concerned analysts, scientists and most government negotiators. The realization that the expectations for a fully legal, ambitious, and working deal have not been met by the world’s most powerful leaders in Copenhagen has damaged somewhat climate politics. Is has also given deniers’s the motivation and the opportunity to launch their public opinion and political offensive, particularly in the UK and the US.  But let’s look to the brighter sides.

All major countries are implementing their own climate change agenda. In the US, the EPA, at the federal level, the states, and cities are working towards better and tougher regulation of carbon emissions. The energy law is not president Obama’s top priority yet. Nor is it the top priority of US society. So, it will probably go the hard and long way to be eventually approved, rather than enter into a fast track voting process. Local initiative has not loose momentum, nor has the Federal Government been paralyzed. China is leading global investment in green energy and pollution control, for its own sake. The Chinese government has been issuing new carbon regulations at an increasing pace. India is also starting to pursue low carbon targets of its own. No major emitter has abandoned the pledges made at Copenhagen. In other words: political commitment to action on climate change is holding and there are signs of further improvement. Legally binding policies have been enacted by the rulers of all major global emitters, and several other countries.

A greater threat to short-term climate progress comes from the fact that the world is facing a new shockwave of the financial crisis. European economies were hit before they could fully recover from the original one. The crisis in Europe is not confined to Greece. Spain and Portugal are also in trouble. It is a complex, and deep financial and fiscal disarray that has strong explosive power. Major EU and the US economies are still too weak to resist a contagion effect, if the present crisis goes out of control and spreads throughout the global financial market.

This means that unless the economic downturn and its collateral damage are not fully overcome, climate change will hardly become a significant global priority this year. Not a likely prospect. Climate change will remain on the political agenda of all major economies as a serious 21st century challenge, but comprehensive action may be further delayed.

So, the gloomier view on climate change politics results from a short-term vision mostly, but not entirely, based on appearances. We are not moving backwards, but we are stalling again. Today the conditions for a fully legal treaty are slim, if not adversary. Countries are still tackling far more pressing short-term problems

This scenario of renewed economic turmoil and delayed concern for climate change requires some strategic thinking. It would be very important to prevent COP16 from becoming another major frustration. The future of global climate change politics depends on getting the best results possible, at Cancún, under the prevailing circumstances. There are several risks to manage for the world to succeed at COP16.

There are two opposite risks to avoid, looking first at expectations. The first one would be an inflation of expectations about a legal agreement like the one we’ve had about COP15. It seems very unlikely now, but should be prevented by all means beforehand. The other one would be a self-defeating radical deflation of all expectations. A risk we are already facing today. The third risk concerns agenda setting. Depending on how the economic scenario develops, especially during the first half of 2010, it would be very risky to set very ambitious goals for COP16. A set of realistic goals would help to prevent another frustration. If the scenario doesn’t improve considerably, the goal of a climate treaty should be explicitly postponed, before the beginning of COP16.

It would be better instead to work towards bringing the original “spirit” of the Copenhagen Accord into the framework of UNFCCC’s working documents, in both the Climate Convention (AWGLCA) and the Kyoto Protocol (AWGKP) tracks. To reconcile the original aims of the Copenhagen political accord and the UNFCCC legal process is doable, but will require long and hard negotiations. It would not be feasible to form the necessary consensus to effectively close a fully legal agreement this year. The goal should be to align the political and the legal tracks as much as possible. Having a treaty drafted, approved and signed does seem, at the moment, to be out of the reach of COP16. Another important goal would be to deepen major countries’s commitment to the political accord.

Strengthening the Copenhagen Accord could be an appropriate issue for the agenda of G20 and Major Economies Forum (MEF) meetings. Clearly, the first issue on their agenda will be, again, the economy. Leaders of this major league of countries cannot, however, disregard climate change and pending questions about the Copenhagen Accord. Climate change will very likely be on their agenda. The best way to deal with the Accord is to take it seriously. The Copenhagen Accord can yet gain greater political density. Targets can be improved or reviewed, within the next three or five years. Commitments could be clarified, helping to bridge the gap between the political and the legal tracks in the future. The BASIC countries’ association to the Accord is still lukewarm, and China has only declared to be “supportive”. US support could also be made more assertive.

Progress on the preparation for a legally binding agreement, and strengthening of the political accord, could be a realistic and relevant agenda for 2010 and COP16.

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