Analysis, COP16
24 November, 2010

Shifting contexts: why effective action on climate change will be delayed

Sergio Abranches

Politics and climate are often at odds with each other. The best scientific evidence shows a continuous and accelerating trend towards climate change. Each year of inaction represents higher costs in the future.

We’ll have to face the unavoidable climatic consequences of past GHG accumulation, and will have to scale up the effort to reduce the risk of cataclysmic scenarios. Politics are far more influenced by short run shifting contexts, than by long run trends. If an event of the magnitude of Katrina reached each major player of global climate politics every year, appropriate decisions would come quick and easy. But, fortunately these events seldom repeat on an yearly sequence and everywhere at the same time. But they are indeed becoming more frequent.

Shifts and turns in the political and economic realms are far more frequent. Weakening cabinet support, losses in midterm elections, economic downturns have far more influence  on political and corporate decision-making around the world. The pressing demands of unemployment, poverty, consumption upgrading or downgrading are stronger than the far more dangerous claims about climate change. Even though unmitigated climate change would impede economic growth, and increase unemployment and poverty.

Things are even more complex because political and economic shifting contexts may frequently contradict each other or, even worse, reinforce each other in the wrong direction. The economic contexts of 2005 or 2006, for instance, were more positive to climate change decision-making than the circumstances of 2009 or 2010. That is to say, the economic contexts of COP11, in Montréal, or COP12, in Nairobi, were much better than the economic conditions under which COP13 (Bali), COP14 (Posnan), and COP15 (Copenhagen) took place. The latter were all marked by the subprime crisis or its aftershocks. But the political conditions for a climate agreement in 2005 or 2006 were not good at all. The U.S. had a contrarian attitude under the Bush administration. The governments of China, India, and Brazil were not yet convinced they should accept any commitment for reducing their carbon emissions. The political context was too negative for the major players and carbon emitters outside the reach of the Kyoto Protocol to decide on a global climate agreement.

This mismatch of the economic and political circumstances has also happened in Copenhagen, the other way around. The political context had changed for the better in the U.S. with the Obama administration and its debut at the UNFCCC talks. China, India and Brazil changed their noncommittal attitude in the months prior to the Copenhagen Summit. All three arrived in Copenhagen after having disclosed the voluntary emissions reductions pledges they were willing to bring to the table of negotiations. But the crisis in the developed world wasn’t over, and there were signs it was worsening again.

What about Cancun? The mismatch is over but, alas, in the wrong direction: the political context has taken a negative turn in many countries. Obama has lost the midterm elections, and Congress has dismissed the climate and clean energy bill. Lula’s term is  only five weeks to go. The president-elect, Dilma Rousseff is far less committed to the idea of Brazil taking responsibility for mitigation efforts. There is a lot of stress impairing concerted economic and political action in the EU. In Germany, Angela Merkel’s coalition is barely holding together, and the Chancellor is losing popular support. In France, Nicholas Sarkozy is facing cyclical outbursts of social unrest. In the UK, the new coalition government’s expenditure cuts are raising uneasiness among the population. Besides, they have badly hit climate change and scientific programs. In China, a two-year process of power transition raises some uncertainty about the present government’s propensity to support a more effective climate pact.

The economic context is even more negative. The crisis in the U.S. is far from over. Unemployment is too high. Signs of recovery are faint, at the very best. The Eurozone is in danger of falling apart. Conservative fiscal policies in the UK are likely to delay economic recovery. Portugal and Spain are in dire straits. Conflict of economic interest between the U.S. and China is on the rise. A currency war leads to greater monetary imbalances among countries, making it more difficult for them to cooperate towards a concerted solution. Cooperation in other complex policy areas becomes far more difficult when countries fail to reach a common understanding of global or regional economic issues.

What should we expect looking at the adverse context awaiting Cancun’s climate talks?

Certainly not the broad, conclusive agreement we have failed to get in Copenhagen. There are, however, some open tracks under the present circumstances. One of them, very few people are talking about, would be to make the Copenhagen Accord official. In Copenhagen, the plenary took note of it. A save-face solution. Now, its terms have been accepted as part of the LCA document. The plenary of COP16 could approve it as a voluntary agreement, not a legally binding one, but under official umbrella of the Climate Convention.

Why should we do that? Because it is the first ever agreement within the Climate Convention that has been fully supported by the U.S. China, India, Brazil, the European Union, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, and a few others. All full members of the “high-carbon club”. A study UNEP has just released shows the gap between the Copenhagen emission reduction pledges and what is needed to keep warming at the vicinity of 2oC. It has a best-case scenario in which what is lacking could be supplemented using existing technologies. The data also shows that the countries associated to the Copenhagen Accord, with registered pledges, represent a higher volume of carbon emissions than the aggregate emissions of Annex I countries under the Kyoto Protocol. The Accord is voluntary, but would be even more legitimate, accountable and prone to global social control if it becomes official. The Accord has already been negotiated and approved by the heads of states and governments. Making it an official UN document is a smaller step.

There are, additionally, issues related to the Copenhagen Accord that still need to be clarified and approved. Some are for the short-run. The  fast-track section of the financial mechanism was decided but wasn’t implemented. It could be updated and its implementation rescheduled and disbursement to the less developed countries ensured. Some are for the future. The MRV mechanism, for instance, that enabled the Accord at the last-hour negotiations between Obama and the BASIC countries still lacks a methodology that adequately expresses what has been agreed upon.

Another track that could yield good results would be to concentrate on mid to long term issues that are still undecided, preparing them for a final decision under a more positive future context. Problem solving and conflict resolution could make progress if one knows that no decisions are to be implemented immediately, but only after a full agreement is decided upon. Taking a longer, less pressing view could help to remove deadlocks and create some incentive to cooperation.

There still is a chance for Cancun to become a milestone on the path towards a good future global climate agreement.

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