There is not much good news when it comes to managing the global system. The euro is (still) in crisis; trade talks are stuck; the Group of 20 has run into the sand; and then there is climate change – the greatest global challenge met by the greatest global short-sightedness. Or are we missing something?
Certainly, the 2009 Copenhagen conference ended in stalemate and the “climategate” affair has given sceptics a field day. Also, the financial crisis has turned attention away from the climate challenge. But, at a bad time in the news cycle just before Christmas, the parties to the UN climate convention, meeting in Durban, agreed that a global legally binding approach to controlling emissions would be undertaken, to be signed in 2015 and implemented from 2020.
Europe played a vital role in Durban. But the key shift was from China. Under pressure from vulnerable and poor states in Africa and elsewhere, it has shifted from naysayer to supporter of a global deal. The US found itself outflanked – with Saudi Arabia and Venezuela for company.
The challenge now is to avoid a repetition of Copenhagen. The world cannot afford three years of talks that founder at the last minute. Success in 2015 depends on several factors. First, we need to change the debate from being narrowly about climate to being broadly about resources. This means food, water and energy – on land and in the oceans. All three are obviously affected by climate change. All three interact in dangerous ways. Increasing our resource efficiency not only helps the climate but also will help our economy.
Second, Europe needs to show how low carbon contributes to our economic benefit not hardship. George Osborne, the UK chancellor of the exchequer, is fond of saying that “we will not save the planet by bankrupting the UK economy”. Of course we will not, but we can enrich Europe’s including Britain’s economy by putting ourselves at the head of a low-carbon revolution that represents an economic transformation at least as big as the entry of China into the global economy. Today, more than ever, Europe needs a common project to counteract the forces pushing it apart – leading the low-carbon revolution can be such a project.
Third, the debate needs to be rebalanced from “climate-makers” – countries that emit CO2 – to “climate-takers”, the people and countries that suffer from climate change. There are new political coalitions to be built here, aligning countries with common interests in a low-carbon future, outside the confines of the traditional monolithic UN blocs and balancing the powerful voices of carbon-burning industries.
Fourth, we cannot just hope for a shift in US politics on climate change. Barack Obama’s personal commitment is clear, but I do not know anyone who sees how a global agreement could get the necessary two-thirds support in the Senate. The Republican party is in the hands of the climate-change deniers. We need to work out how to accommodate the US without excusing them – or it will again become a pretext for others to refuse to move.
Fifth, national pledges of action made under the Cancún agreement of December 2010 need to be fulfilled. These do not get the world on track to keep emissions below the level likely to lead to a rise of 2°C this century, but they do provide a base on which to build.
Sixth, technological innovation is vital for action on emissions and for the political support necessary for transition to a low-carbon economy and society. The incentives – from prices to regulatory standards – need to be structured to drive investment and innovation in low carbon. This includes the vital issue of decarbonising energy supply. Europe and China could forge a remarkable low-carbon trade deal to promote low-carbon technological progress.
Seventh, there is the pressing issue of finance for adapting to and mitigating climate change. In Copenhagen, leaders made grand statements and pledged $100bn, but to date little real money has been committed. Not much will happen without finance and the right mechanisms for getting public support and private sector capital flowing to the low-carbon economy.
Finally, the scientific community has to rehabilitate itself. In 2014, the UN’s fifth assessment is set to report a significant worsening of the trends. But the communication of those facts and the strengthening of trust in climate science is critical.
Achieving a global deal will help, but a treaty is only as good as the actions countries take to implement it. Before the crisis, Britain enacted some of the world’s strongest pro-climate policies and was staking out a position as a leader in the green economy. We cannot let the age of austerity be the age of inaction – the climate will not wait. Reducing our dependence on foreign energy, investing in low-carbon infrastructure and innovating, and exporting, green technologies are critical levers for reviving the UK’s economy.
Low-carbon development raises issues of justice, security and prosperity. It is one of the hardest nuts to crack in the multilateral system. As leadership elections and transitions dominate politics in the next 18 months, this is a challenge the winners cannot be allowed to duck.
The writer was Britain’s foreign secretary and is a Labour MP