Special Report

Penetrating the verbal fog of war

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Special Report: The COP 15 climate summit in Copenhagen


As the UN climate talks in Copenhagen draw near, the inevitable use of spin is being deployed to manage expectations and evade obligations. Tom Burke calls for the underlying goal to be kept in sight

A verbal fog of war has now enveloped the Copenhagen negotiations in the final days before the summit begins. This is inevitable. As well as the normal noise of negotiation there is now a flurry of manoeuvring to manage expectations. Spin machines are working overtime to ensure that those seeking to evade the obligations of a strong and effective treaty are concealed by a protective smokescreen of ambiguous words.

Penetrating this fog is difficult. It requires a reliable linguistic radar to pick out the truth from the false echoes of ambiguity. Caution is needed to avoid falling into the dangerous quagmires of marginal detail. Above all it is important to remember where you came from and where you are trying to get to.

The tortuous progression from the Earth Summit in 1992 via the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 to the Bali Roadmap in 2007 constructed today’s global regime for tackling climate change. This regime is based on a political bargain. At its heart is the agreement by the industrialised nations to reduce their carbon emissions first and to help the developing countries financially both to adapt to a changing climate and to reduce their emissions.

In return, developing countries agreed to take actions that would lower their emissions below where they otherwise might have been. This asymmetric bargain reflected the recognition by industrialised nations that they were responsible for most of the cumulative carbon burden in the atmosphere. It is embodied in the key principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’.

This regime, cumbersome though it is, has been more successful than its critics recognise. Carbon emissions in most of the industrialised nations are below where they were in 1990 and considerably below where they might otherwise have been. Money has flowed, albeit too little and too slowly, to developing countries. There has been a massive increase in our knowledge of the causes and effects of climate change. The issue has moved from the political margins to become one of the top three issues on the global agenda.

Driven by successive UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, governments are now more aware of the systemic risk posed by climate change. Institutional capacity has been strengthened and more ambitious national policies adopted.

In ratifying the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) all nations, including the US, committed to work to avoid ‘dangerous’ change to the climate. However, the convention did not specify how much climate change would be dangerous.

In 2007, the IPCC’s fourth report warned that greenhouse gases were causing more and faster change than had been previously thought. There is now clear advice from climate scientists that government’s should aim to keep the eventual rise in global temperature below 2°C. In July this year, the leaders of those countries responsible for most of the world’s current emissions, including China and India, formally accepted this advice.

Thus we now have a clear destination for the climate regime to be agreed in Copenhagen. In effect, 2°C has been established as the threshold of dangerous climate change. If Copenhagen sets the world on course to stay below this level it will have succeeded. If not, it will have failed.

If we could lift the thickening fog of war, the key elements in a successful agreement would be clear to everyone. To have a chance of staying within the 2°C limit the level of CO2 in the atmosphere needs to be kept below 450 parts per million. To get there, global carbon emissions must be reduced by at least 80% by 2050.

The EU and the US have already set this as the long-run goal of their climate policy. But because the build up of carbon in the atmosphere is cumulative, you cannot leave getting there to the last minute. This means setting mid-term targets.

These mid-term targets for the industrialised nations are the key to the whole Copenhagen agreement. To put the world onto the right path to stay below 2°C the industrialised nations must agree to a binding commitment to reduce their emissions to 25-40% below 1990 levels by 2020.

Developing countries would not yet need to make binding commitments to reduce their emissions below current levels. But they would have to make binding commitments to programmes of action to reduce their emissions below where they might otherwise have been. In the jargon of the negotiations these actions would have to be measurable, reportable and verifiable.

In return for these commitments the industrialised nations would provide finance to the tune of about $100bn annually by 2020. This finance would be available in part to support the action programmes to reduce emissions and in part to pay for adaptation in climate vulnerable countries. Some 30% of these capital flows would be from public sources but the majority would be in the form of private capital flows – largely financed by the purchase of carbon offsets needed to meet industrialised nations’ emissions reduction commitments.

Closing the deal

This is the essential heart of the deal to be done at Copenhagen. If this deal, or something close to it, cannot be struck then the whole global climate regime is in doubt. There are, of course, many other issues and a lot more details – any one of which could block agreement. But the closer we are to getting the core deal, the less likely this is.

The reason the verbal fog of war is thickening so rapidly stems from a growing lack of confidence that this deal can be struck in December. This has led to the proposal to settle for a political declaration in Copenhagen which might or might not lead to a ratifiable treaty.

It has stimulated Danish prime minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen to talk beguilingly of a “politically binding” agreement for “immediate implementation”. This is simply hand waving. All anyone can do immediately is what they have already committed to do. In which case, what is being negotiated? The term “politically binding” has no meaning at all in diplomacy. It is simply a promise by a politician worth as much as any other such promise.

The intent of such slippery use of language is to manage the headlines, not to change the outcome. There will be a lot more of it as we get closer to Copenhagen without resolving the real problems with getting a legally binding treaty in December. The central problem boils down to finding a way for the US to re-enter the global climate regime without wrecking it in the process.

Neither the rest of the industrialised world, nor the developing world, is willing to make further emissions reductions commitments until they know what the US will put on the table. Since these commitments are what drive the whole regime, there is an understandable unwillingness  to agree all the other issues until they are known.

It is the fading prospect of US domestic legislation to underpin US greenhouse gas reduction commitments being passed before December that has undermined confidence of a treaty being agreed in Copenhagen. In effect, no US commitments, no deal.

The world, and the US negotiators, are sensibly wary of repeating the Kyoto experience where the US signed up to international obligations it later had to repudiate in the face of Congressional opposition.

In itself, this is not an insurmountable problem. The US is serious in its desire to rejoin the global climate regime. The rest of the world is equally anxious it should do so. There is a well established device in international negotiations of ‘stopping the clock’ to avoid an otherwise available agreement being lost by running out of time.

If the US cannot pass its legislation by June 2010 it is unlikely to be able to pass it later that year, if at all. This defines how long the clock must be stopped. Anything longer and we will be on the road to never-never land. In formal terms that means that the negotiations in December would be adjourned, not concluded.

This is the key point. It is one thing to agree to play extra time, quite another to ask for a replay. To accept a political declaration in Copenhagen that does not contain a specific and unambiguous commitment to agreeing a ratifiable treaty by a date certain in June  2010, would be to give up establishing a climate regime with any prospect of staying below 2°C. It would be asking for a replay that might never happen.

If a political declaration is all that can be agreed in December it must be a postponement, not a cancellation. If it is to be a postponement that does not morph insidiously into a cancellation, it must agree to a specific date by which a ratifiable treaty will be finalised. If you cannot find that date, it is not there. If it is not there, you have more fog, not a deal that will avoid dangerous climate change.

Tom Burke is a founding director of E3G and a visiting professor at Imperial College and University College London