Climate experts’ forum: who is responsible for the chaos?

FT Energy Source is posting a daily question for our panel of expert commentators. Below are replies from Kyoto carbon markets architect Graciela Chichilnisky, Jeremy Leggett of Solarcentury, Julian Morris of the International Policy Network and Robert Stavins of Harvard University.

Who is responsible for today’s summit in Copenhagen being as chaotic and uncertain as it is?

Graciela Chichilnisky: The chaos in Copenhagen had three contributing causes that amplified what is always a difficult process – the process of reaching an agreement among almost 200 nations on a crucial issue.

The first cause is that the US was out of the process for the eight years of the Bush administration. The US is the main emittor (together with China) and did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol. This meeting was partly about bringing the US into the fold – a challenging task at best.

President Obama is changing the US stance, but the way this was handled from the UN negotiations angle was by creating two separate negotiation tracks. One is the “Kyoto Protocol track” the other is “Long Term Co-operative Agreements” under the 1992 UN Convention.

Having two tracks made everything twice more difficult than ever. Almost impossible I would say.

In addition global warming is considered now the major risk facing humankind. A lot of demonstrators representing global public opinion were here to make that point – at some point the number mentioned was 35,000 in a relatively small city such as Copenhagen. The demonstrators were important to the small emitting nations of Africa, Latin America and the small island states to make a point to the large emittors. They played an important role.

However, I do not think the Copenhagen police did a good job in handling the demonstrations. There were more than a thousand of people arrested. In reality, the Danish police borrowed police from Germany and Sweden for the task – and I know they were somewhat disatisfied themselves with a process that was difficult and not always as respectful for the people involved as the Danish culture would lead us to expect.

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

Jeremy Leggett: Let’s start with the two biggest emitters. President Barack Obama said nothing this morning to advance the limp formulation tabled by Hillary Clinton yesterday. The world needed him to seize his moment and show the political will of Winston Churchill, taking the summit to a new place, shaming the pessimists and foot-draggers into silence, assuming greatness as a global leader forever. Instead he gave us a dose of Neville Chamberlain. He wants to wave a piece of paper that will not get us on course for keeping the carbon enemy caged.

“I am sure many would consider this an imperfect framework,” Mr Obama said. But we can either take a “historic step forward”, or we can choose delay and repeats of the “stale” arguments “until climate change becomes irreversible”.

The arguments from the US, let it be recalled, have been staler than those of most governments in these negotiations, and for longer.

As for China, how its cautious leaders have let their people down. The Chinese economy is essentially resident on its coastal plain. Every percentage point of GDP the leadership proudly post will end up destroyed by the march of irreversible climate change, and much more besides. The Chinese leaders know this. The Chinese Academy of Sciences tells them so. They could have shamed the Americans into meaningful action by committing to a cap on emissions within a few years, with steady reductions therafter: the measure needed from them if we are to have a realistic crack at capping global warming at 2 degrees C. They could have scared the climate-denying American heartland into low-carbon action by showing them, whatever their beliefs, that they will be buried economically by a tsunami of Chinese clean-technology industries unless they act.

Beyond these two countries, and their 40 per cent share of global emissions, there is a general shared responsibility of course. Picture this convention of world leaders as the board meeting of a giant corporation. The board has known they had to deliver a master plan for many years, with the very survival of the corporation at stake. And they turn up with no plan, bickering among themselves over trifling matters. Just imagine the shareholder reaction.

Finally there are the hosts. The Danes and the UN have made a dog’s dinner of the logistics, from beginning to end, despite the long lead time they have had to prepare. They have treated negotiators, the press and NGOs unforgivably. Ambassadors, correspondents, CEOs and campaigners alike have had to queue for hours in the freezing cold. Civil society has been shut out of the endgame with no meaningful representation. The paramilitary Danish police are already under investigation for excess in their treatment of the anguished youthful protestors, and the final day is far from over. The very cause of democracy has been set back back at the Copenhagen summit.

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

Julian Morris: The chaos – and possible failure – of the Copenhagen summit is largely a consequence of the narrow focus on carbon control as the main instrument to address climate change. This in turn has been driven by five groups: NGOs, business interests, climate scientists, government officials and intergovernmental agencies.

Each group has a financial interest in promoting carbon control: NGOs derive their revenue from donors whom they must keep in a state of constant fear concerning the future state of the planet and thereby clamorous to be led to safety by those very same NGOs. Business interests, such as steel producers and oil companies that hold hundreds of billions of dollars worth of carbon credits, plus carbon traders, “renewable” energy companies, Nuclear power companies, and ethanol producers, all stand to benefit from future restrictions on carbon. Climate scientists have an interest in perpetuating the concern that carbon emissions are causing potentially catastrophic global warming – because it is easier to justify funding research into phenomena that might imperil humanity.

Last but by no means least, government officials see combating climate change as a justification for their own existence, as well as for the imposition of revenue raising measures (such as taxes on fuel). Finally, intergovernmental agencies, especially the World Meteorological Organisation, the United Nations Environment Programme, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (a joint project of the WMO and UNEP), and the Secretariat of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, each have an interest in promoting carbon control because it suits their bureaucratic interests in a way that, say, decentralised adaptation through market processes would not.

Julian Morris is an economist, author and director of The International Policy Network.

Robert Stavins: I’m not sure “chaos and uncertainty” are the words I would have chosen to characterise the situation at the climate negotiations in the Danish capital, but my response is that there are two aspects to what has been characterised as the “chaotic and uncertain” nature of the COP-15 conference at the Bella Center in Copenhagen. One is the substantive process and eventual outcome, which remains uncertain as of this hour, and the other is the shocking logistical failure.

An uncertain outcome for the negotiations

It should not be surprising that the outcome remains in doubt, because of some basic economic realities. First of all, keep in mind that climate change is the ultimate common global problem, because greenhouse gases uniformly mix in the atmosphere. Therefore, each country incurs the costs of its emission-reduction actions, but the benefits of its actions are spread worldwide. Hence, for any individual nation, the benefits it receives from its actions are inevitably less than the costs it incurs, despite the fact that globally the total benefits of appropriate co-ordinated international action would exceed the total costs (and for many countries the national benefits of co-ordinated international action would exceed their national costs of action).

This creates a classic free-rider problem, and is the reason why international co-operation – whether through an agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change or through some other multilateral or bilateral arrangements – is necessary.

Second, addressing global climate change will be costly and it raises profound distributional implications for the countries of the world. In particular, addressing climate change at minimum cost (i.e. cost-effectively) requires that all countries take responsibility for their emissions going forward, and indeed necessitates that all countries control at the same marginal abatement cost.

On the other hand, addressing climate change in an equitable fashion clearly requires taking account of the dramatically different economic circumstances of the countries of the world, and may also involve looking backwards at historic responsibility for the anthropogenic greenhouse gases which have already accumulated in the atmosphere. These are profound issues of distributional equity.

This classic trade-off between cost-effectiveness (or efficiency), on the one hand, and distributional equity, on the other, raises significant obstacles to reaching an agreement.

So, I place the fault for the substantive uncertainty in the negotiations neither on the industrialised countries (including the United States, for insisting that China and other key emerging economies participate in meaningful and transparent ways), nor on the developing countries (for insisting that the industrialised world pay much of the bill).

The key question going forward is whether negotiators in Copenhagen today and tonight, or in Bonn several months from now, or in Mexico City a year from now, can identify a policy architecture that is both reasonably cost-effective and sufficiently equitable, and thereby can assemble support from the key countries of the world, and thus do something truly meaningful about the long-term path of global greenhouse gas emissions. There are promising paths forward, and – if you’ll forgive me – I will remind readers that many have been identified by the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements.
Rather than pointing fingers at who is to blame for the current uncertainty at this hour, I can attribute credit to a number of countries and institutions for having brought the negotiations to the point where it appears at least possible that a successful outcome will be achieved in Copenhagen or subsequently.
First of all, tremendous credit must be given to the national leaders and the negotiating teams of the 17 major economies of the world who together represent about 90 per cent of global emissions, because these countries have worked hard to produce what each considers a sensible outcome over the months and years leading up to COP-15.

This includes not only the European Union, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and Canada, but also the United States, which at least since January of this year has been an enthusiastic and intelligent participant in this international process. It also includes many of the key emerging economies of the world – China , India, Brazil, Mexico, Korea, South Africa, and Indonesia, among them – as well as a considerable number of poor, developing countries, which likewise take the problem seriously and have been trying to find an acceptable path forward.

Finally, credit should be given to the Danish government and its leadership, the Secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, who have worked tirelessly for months, indeed years, to prepare for the substance of these negotiations at COP-15 in Copenhagen.

That’s the “good news,” but now I should turn to the other aspect of the “uncertainty and chaos” in Copenhagen.

Chaos at COP-15’s Bella Center

As I noted at the outset, there are two aspects of the “chaos” in Copenhagen, and for the second aspect it is (sadly) possible to identify the apparently responsible parties. I am referring to the fact that the organisers – the secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the hosts, the Danish government – apparently approved a list of some 40,000 observers from 900 official, accredited organisations around the world, knowing that the Bella Center could accommodate at most 15,000 persons at any one time. The result is that thousands of people – including not only non-government organisation representatives, but also government negotiators – stood in line outside of the Bella Center in the bitter cold on Monday and Tuesday of this week waiting 8-10 hours to get inside to receive their credentials. Thousands of others never got inside to receive their credentials, despite having waited up to 8 hours, standing in the cold. These are not exaggerations. It is remarkable and very fortunate if no one died in the process.

Then, on Wednesday through Friday, the Bella Center was essentially closed to all representatives of civil society, despite the fact that side-events had been organised by them months in advance with the approval of the COP-15 organisers.

The result is that thousands of people, who had been informed by the COP-15 organisers many months ago that they were approved to attend, had flown to Copenhagen from all over the world, incurred those costs and the costs of their accommodation, yet never were able to get inside the Bella Center to carry out any of the work they had planned, and flew back home having wasted their time and resources (and having contributed to the COP-15 carbon footprint in non-trivial ways).

Now, I have never been an enthusiast of what some people have described as the annual “circus” of the COPs, a circus – if it is that — which is largely due to the fact that the actual government negotiators are vastly outnumbered by the civil society representatives (“official observers” in the UNFCCC language) and the press. However, if the participation of civil society representatives is going to be encouraged (as required under the original UNFCCC agreement), and if the attendance of those representatives is going to be approved in advance, then surely they should not be denied admission when they arrive, nor forced to stand in line outside in the cold for eight hours waiting to be admitted.

No doubt, both the UNFCCC and the Danish government will point fingers at the other, but ultimately the responsibility must be shared. In 17 years of these annual conferences, going back to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, there has never been such a disastrous logistical failure. It could have been anticipated. And it should have been prevented.

A final word
Of course, as of this hour, I — along with millions of others — hope that the negotiators in Copenhagen will achieve agreement on some truly meaningful steps forward in this important process.

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

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