Sunday, 11 December 2011

COP-17: Brazil, China, India, South Africa and USA Wearing the Dunce Cap, Europe the Jester's

Some of you may know that this has happened to become a bit of yearly feature – me commenting on the latest climate policy debacle happening as clockwork this time of year. Earlier posts are here and here. Sources for getting to know about the outcome of this year's COP are here, here, here, here, here, here (last three international, more below).

To summarise, the outcome of COP-15 in Copenhagen in 2009 was nothing except that everyone agreed to keep meeting and that having a climate change policy deal capable of stopping the increase of the global mean temperature at 2°C is an important target. In Cancún last year (COP-16), not even that happened, since Bolivia declined to sign on to continued talks. What did happen, though, was a sort of thing that ended up as the main product of this year's talks, namely agreement not on any policy, but on the practical structure of continued talks. In the COP-16 deal, this agreement was restricted to the way of handling the most difficult questions of all, namely the distribution of the costs of climate change policy (emission reductions as well as adaption to inevitable natural changes); which is planned to be dealt with through a special fund.

This year, nothing more about this fund was said (such as how it is going to become filled with money), but a similar empty institutional form has been set up for the entirety of the continued process, planned to lead to an agreement on emission reductions in 3 years. In short, instead of yearly meetings at the highest levels, there will be a committee that will work for almost 3 years to tailor an agreement and a new COP-meeting in 2015 where, hopefully, the committee can present a substantial deal about climate policy rather than meeting policy that all countries are willing to sign on to. This is the "roadmap" that is presented as the success of COP-17 in Durban.

As, usual, if the expert commentators are to be believed, this agreement, is full of ambiguities, grey areas and explicit holes, but that goes with the territory of international agreements. However, what it effectively does is to reduce the number of opportunities for the global community to actually agree on something with any chance of reaching the goal of no more than 2°C increase of the global mean temperature from three to one. After 2015, experts advise us that we will have to start calculating with more drastic average global temperature increases even if very effective policies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions are eventually put into motion. Now, the 2° target, it must be understood, is not in any way magical or set in stone. In fact, some claims it to be a much too allowing goal. Moreover, the target is rather a range than an exact temperature, since the climate models necessarily embody rather drastic uncertainties. But the 2°C is of importance for two reasons. First, it is one of the very few substantial things about climate policy that the global community has been able to agree on. Second, it approximates the limit of our empirical knowledge from the past and, thus, our basis for prediction, preparation and adaption in face of the various changes that increases of the global mean temperature bring. A bit simplified, beyond 2°C, what we have is basically mathematics and fantasy – something that is amply illustrated by the predictive models in climate change research. Our ability to prepare for whatever will be coming – and thus to be capable of reversing the process without considerable higher cost to human life and well-being – becomes drastically weakened. So, seen in this light, the bare bones of COP-17 is that such a prospect has become 66% more likely by agreeing on one attempt to agree rather than three.

Now, if any politically minded person reads this, he or she will probably protest. The reasoning above ignores that the model of yearly meetings at the highest level has a solid record of failure, and that the Durban roadmap means that a committee will be working for three years before the next meeting. This is a big different to the situation where initiatives were left to individual countries or leagues of such. They will say: the basic problems – the unwillingness of high emission countries to commit to the needed reductions and the unwillingness of rich countries to face the fact that if they do not pay for the needed measures, no one will – necessitates that whatever proposal is presented at the next meeting is well worked out in the eyes of all sides and parties. I accept this logic of the pragmatics of politics, but I am skeptical about the conclusion. In fact, when not having the spotlights of the world stage on them, isn't it even more likely that high emission countries will continue to press even more heavily the rest for more concessions and rich countries do the same to less rich ones? Then, when the result is on the table,  all that will remain is the window-dressing that makes it look OK in the eyes of the public, while under the shiny surface mostly expressing short-term and, in this context, petty national interests. In short, committee, fine – but let's speed up and have one working while keeping on having at least one high-level meeting every year to ensure public and critical scrutiny the whole way!

Looking at things from that angle, however, implies a standpoint that fit most politicians pretty bad. It means, for example, acknowledging that this year's COP meeting, just as the former ones, was a massive failure. Not, as this commentary from UK Energy Secretary Chris Huhne tries to spin, a series of successes. Why is this so repugnant to a politician? Well, basically, because of two things. First, in the current situation, where the unholy CO2 emission alliance of Brazil, China, India, South Africa and the USA, are allowed to keep bullying the rest of the world, everything that is an avoidance of total disaster is possible to hold out as success. This is what the statements of Secretary Huhne and a whole band of European politicians are illustrating today. The presence of the climate policy boogeyman (i.e. above mentioned countries) is used to make oneself appear as a hero when, in fact, what has occurred is that one has let oneself be pressed one more notch in the shortsighted game of chicken played by these countries. In this game, apparently, Europe and the rest of the Kyoto-protocol signing countries are allowing themselves to become what game theorists know as money pumps – someone who is applying a strategy that makes one systematically vulnerable to making deals that sum up to a loosing position, while one's counterpart is systematically winning, although each singular deal may look like a winner. Giving in to blackmail (which is, effectively, what Europe is doing in the climate policy negotiation game) is a prime example.

On a larger scale, what is achieved by the Eurpean (plus Canada and Japan) strategy is the following: Brazil, China, India, South Africa and the USA can go hone from Durban, as they could from Copenhagen and Cancún, telling their people that all is well and that they needn't worry. They don't have to tell them that they need to change their expectations to future material growth, the price of energy or anything like that. Why not? Because they have ample evidence that they can press other countries to pay all those bills the day when they arrive. In effect, we may expect no, repeat no, preparation on the political home-fronts of these countries for a climate deal in 2015 which implies making actual concessions and taking on actual commitments. This, I claim, is the main result of the strategy of the EU and the rest of the world in Durban. So ask yourself, how likely does a substantial climate policy deal in 2015 look in that light?

Good work, Europe!