Onwards and Upwards: The Climate-Change Summit in Copenhagen Is Being Called a Failure, but the World Still Wants Cheap, Low-Carbon Power

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Initial reactions to the outcome of the Copenhagen climate summit last December came to an overwhelming conclusion: the meeting had been a dismal failure. Thorn Yorke of the rock band Radiohead, attending the summit on a press pass, characteristically pronounced himself "deeply traumatised" and "truly disgusted" by the outcome. Yet, a few months later, as more sober reflection becomes possible, it is no longer so clear that Copenhagen was a crushing defeat in the fight to avert the threat of climate change.

Initial responses were fuelled by disappointment at the crushing of unrealistic hopes, dismay at the chaotic scenes of the summit's last few days, and a sort of cabin fever induced in negotiators and observers alike at being shut for a fortnight in a cavernous conference centre in wintry Copenhagen. The headlines declaring failure provoked a rush to apportion blame, with China coming in for particularly strong criticism in Britain.

The gloom was justified in one sense: the hoped-for progress to a new climate treaty at the end of 2009, set in motion at the Bali meeting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change two years earlier, did not reach its planned conclusion.

Yvo de Boer, the top UN climate official, who is leaving for a job in the private sector, told the Financial Times recently that he did not expect a new treaty to be signed this year, either.

"I think you could get a decision at Cancun [the UN meeting on climate change at the end of this year], and that what is agreed there [could be] turned into a treaty, but getting the big agreements on the content and the form at the same time, and finalising that in two weeks: that is a very heavy lift," de Boer said.

However, the protracted negotiations over a treaty need not spell the end for efforts to develop low-carbon energy systems. A treaty, though it would have both symbolic and legal force, is not necessarily the answer to the problem of climate change. After the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which was eventually ratified by every country in the world except the US, global emissions rose strongly.

Likewise, even without a treaty it is still possible for climate policy to carry great force. The Copenhagen Accord--agreed at the end of the summit as a short political declaration of the lowest common denominator among the large economies--commits the signatories to some quite challenging objectives, above all the intent to limit the average increase in global temperatures to 2[degrees]C. If the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is right, that means curbs on greenhouse gases that will bite hard enough to start emissions falling after about 2015.

As of February, more than 90 countries had signed up to the accord, accounting for the greater part of the world's output of greenhouse gases, and many had made commitments to cut or slow down the growth of their emissions.

Those curbs still do not match up to the IPCC's view of what is needed for the 2[degrees]C limit on warming, but they are, as the US president, Barack Obama, put it, "unprecedented".

No country has yet been prepared to go further than the commitments it made in the run-up to Copenhagen, but those commitments are already quite bold. …