FT Energy Source Climate experts’ forum: the leaders arrive – is a Copenhagen climate change deal closer?

FT Energy Source is posting a daily question for our panel of expert commentators. Below are replies from Vivienne Cox, chairman of Climate Change Capital, Robert Stavins of Harvard University, Jeremy Leggett of Solarcentury and Kyoto carbon markets architect Graciela Chichilnisky.

Do you expect the leaders’ presence at the Copenhagen negotiations to help or hinder the process of reaching a meaningful climate change deal?

Vivienne Cox

Vivienne Cox: The presence of world leaders will of course help the process because, in reality, it can’t be done without them. It is imperative that they feel committed and responsible for delivering their own country’s commitments. They can also help with the politics of implementation if they are able to raise above the morass of the UN system.

That said, while the leaders’ presence changes the behaviour inside the hall and the nature of the conversation, they are all under pressure to “get a good deal” to tell the folks back home – that they went in and batted for the home side. This misses the point that the only way we, that is all of us, win is by co-operation, not point scoring. Wouldn’t if be different if each of them had the courage to represent only the collective good?

Vivienne Cox is chairman of Climate Change Capital, the environmental investment and advisory group.

Robert Stavins: Unquestionably the presence of some 100 heads of state and heads of government in Copenhagen increases the likelihood that a climate change deal will be reached by the close of business at COP-15 on Friday, but the key question is whether it increases the likelihood that a “meaningful climate change deal” will be achieved.  I am of mixed views on this, as I will explain.

On the one hand, the presence of the leaders surely provide impetus to the process in the sense that many of the key countries – including the United States – will not want their leaders to fly home without a “success” in hand.  For President Barack Obama, in particular, two flights home from Copenhagen within a few weeks without success in either would be a substantial political embarrassment.  (The international press and the Republican opposition in Congress have not forgotten the failed Chicago bid for the Olympics.)  Furthermore, as I explained in a Financial Times Energy Source blog post last week, the very fact that the White House decided to shift President Obama’s trip to Copenhagen from the first week of the conference to its final day suggests that they had good reason to anticipate a successful outcome.

On the other hand, the political incentive that is provided for achieving “success” by the leaders’ presence may be to accept a deal which is less than meaningful (if a meaningful deal cannot be achieved), but one that has the appearance of success.  So, with the heads of state and government present, the incentives could be strong to agree to a climate change deal that is less than meaningful.  The key, outstanding question, therefore, is whether the outcome will be one that provides a sound foundation for meaningful, long-term global action, as opposed to some notion of immediate, albeit highly visible triumph.

It would be unfortunate if the outcome were no more than a signed international agreement per se, glowing press releases, and related photo opportunities for national leaders, because such an agreement would most likely be the Kyoto protocol on steroids: more stringent targets for the industrialised countries and the absence of real commitments by the key rapidly-growing emerging economies of China, India, Brazil, South Korea, Mexico and South Africa (let alone by the numerous developing countries of the world).  With the promise of $100bn now on the table in Copenhagen, such an agreement could — in principle — be signed, but it would not reduce global emissions and it would not be ratified by the US Senate (just like Kyoto).  Hence, there would be no real progress on climate change.

At the heart of the matter is the reality that eventually the negotiations must get beyond what has become the “Qwerty keyboard” (that is, unproductive path dependence) of international climate policy:  the distinction in the Kyoto protocol between the small set of Annex I countries with quantitative targets, and the majority of countries in the world with no responsibilities.  Various meaningful policy architectures could begin to bridge the massive political divide which exists between the industrialised and the developing world, as we’ve found in the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements.

For example, it remains possible that a mid-term agreement could be reached on an approach involving an international portfolio of domestic commitments, whereby each nation would commit and register to abide by its domestic climate commitments, whether those are in the form of laws and regulations or multi-year development plans.  Support for such an approach has been voiced by a remarkably diverse set of countries, including Australia, India and the US.  And comments yesterday from the Chinese delegation suggest that support is increasing for this approach.  Consistent with this portfolio approach, President Obama recently announced that the US would put a target on the table in Copenhagen to reduce emissions 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020 (in line with climate legislation in the US Congress).

In response, China announced that it would reduce its carbon intensity (emissions per unit of economic activity) 40 percent below 2005 levels over the same period of time.  Subsequently, India announced similar targets.  Given these countries rapid rates of economic growth, the announced targets won’t cut emissions in absolute terms, but they are promising starting points for negotiations.  The key question is not what this approach would accomplish in the short-term, but whether it would put the world in a better position two, five and 10 years from now in regard to a long-term path of more aggressive action.

Until we see the final outcome in Copenhagen, I will remain cautiously optimistic, because at least some of the key nations, including the US, appear to be more interested in real progress than in symbolic action.

Robert N. Stavins is Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government at Harvard University.

Jeremy Leggett:The news has grown steadily worse today. The Danish PM’s office is in meltdown, promulgating chaos, without the diplomatic skills or experience to force a way forward, and having lost the trust of the developing countries. Tuvalu for one has give up. The PM told a press conference earlier today that “we will leave with a bitter taste in our mouth. The most vulnerable have not been listened to.” It is clear who he blames. “It is amazing that the US has not considered humanity.”

And indeed Hillary Clinton’s speech today, though cast as an attempted deal saver in many a headline, was a pitiful thing to see, for those who know the long history of the talks. “In the context of a strong accord in which all major economies pledge meaningful mitigation actions and provide full transparency as to those actions,” she said, “the US is prepared to work with other countries towards a goal of mobilising $100bn a year to address the needs of developing countries.”

There are four hand grenades in here. US emissions commitments themselves are far from strong. The US knows China has never accepted intrusive verification of treaties. $100bn a year from all rich countries by 2020, maybe, when the US has tabled more than $3,000 billion for its banks this last year. And then we get to “work towards … a goal”. This is not the stuff of planet saving. It is the stuff of blame positioning.
Gordon Brown got it right this morning. He told delegates they will be blamed forever, because human survival is at stake. “In these few days in Copenhagen which will be blessed or blamed for generations to come, we cannot permit the politics of narrow self-interest to prevent a policy for human survival,” the British prime minister said.

Enter Barack Obama. It seems that only he can swing triumph from the jaws of disaster now. Max Hastings’ biography of Winston Churchill leaps into my mind. “His supreme achievement in 1940 was to mobilise Britain’s warriors, to shame into silence its doubters, to stir the passions of the nation, so that for a season the British people faced the world united and exalted. The ‘Dunkirk spirit’ was not spontaneous. It was created by the the rhetoric and bearing of one man, displaying powers that will define political leadership for for the rest of time.”

The world needs a Churchill now. For the people of Tuvalu today, and all the rest of us tomorrow, let it be Obama.

Jeremy Leggett is an author, founder and executive chairman of Solarcentury, a solar energy company, and ambassador to the Global Observatory at Copenhagen.

Graciela Chichilnisky: It will help.

Graciela Chichilnisky is the architect of the carbon market of the Kyoto Protocol and the co-author of ‘Saving Kyoto’.