The road to Copenhagen is paved with superlatives and absolutes. It will be the planet’s most important environmental meeting ever held, the most difficult and ambitious environmental negotiation ever attempted. It will be the world’s biggest gathering dedicated to climate change, and the last or the best chance for a deal to save Earth from catastrophic climate change.
The road to the Danish capital also undulates violently, from peaks of optimism to troughs of despair. Every headline proclaiming that this UN meeting is doomed to failure seems to be followed by another in which some leading figure says it can still succeed. During the final countdown to the start of the meeting on December 7, the mood has turned pessimistic.
Why all the fuss, all the drama? It is largely because man-made climate change is an extraordinarily important and difficult global issue which needs urgent international attention now.
But, equally important, because people – governments, media, NGOs and lobbyists for a growing number of businesses backing strong action on climate change – hope that talking up the importance of Copenhagen will increase the chances of success.
In fact, the outcome of Copenhagen will make little immediate difference to UK policy. Nothing will change on the morning of Saturday, 19 December when, after through-the-night negotiations, the climate summit comes to its groggy-eyed conclusion.
Over the medium to longer term, however, the agreement, or lack of it, may have a much larger impact.
Take the most pessimistic, and fairly unlikely, concivable outcome on the 19th. The UN meeting fails completely, ending with walk outs and recriminations and no agreement on anything. As a consequence, the prospect of any global agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions is put back by half a decade or more.
Were that to happen, the UK government would not repeal its Climate Change Act 2008 nor abandon the greenhouse gas-curbing budgets created beneath it, either before or after the general election due in the spring. It would carry on developing the policies needed to hit those targets; these are still in their infancy. It might, however, hold back on implementing some of them.
A political consensus has developed in the UK for strong action to curb emissions. All the main political parties back this, as do the Welsh and Scottish nationalists. Even the BNP’s website says: “Climate change is a threat to Britain… we should try to minimise the emissions of greenhouse gases.”
Will this consensus evaporate in the event of a Copenhagen collapse? Not immediately. The British position will continue to be that an effective global deal on reducing emissions is needed, and that the UK should lead in taking strong action. Even if an incoming Conservative government announced a major review of energy and climate change policy, this remains the most likely conclusion.
After all, there are compelling energy security arguments for a strategy that reduces Britain’s dependence on fossil fuels as UK North Sea oil and gas peter out. Almost all policies under development for reducing emissions work in that direction, with carbon capture and storage the only obvious exception.
Policy on climate change in both the UK and the EU has been driven by an engaged, campaigning minority which includes scientists, business leaders, politicians, environmental activists and NGO members. These people are not going to go away simply because Copenhagen fails. Indeed, failure may intensify efforts.
A step towards agreement
Now consider the most optimistic possible outcome. It will almost certaintly fail to deliver what is required - a binding agreement which guarantees global emissions stop rising within a decade or two then begin to fall rapidly. But Copenhagen could mark an important step on the road to achiving such an agreement soon.
The EU has pledged to cut its emissions by 30% between 1990 and 2020, rather than the 20% it is now committed to, in the event of a strong agreement in Denmark. Even if the Copenhagen outcome is, in fact, rather weak and uncertain the EU could still end up declaring for 30% by 19 December in an effort to maintain the momentum of negotiations. It is hard to see any circumstances in which the 30% offer would be withdrawn.
For the UK, an EU 30% target would imply a shift to cutting annual greenhouse gas output by 42% rather than 34% over that 30-year period, as set out in Britain’s new carbon budgets. This in turn would seem to imply a major increase in British effort with a range of tougher, more radical emissions-cutting policies having to be drawn up.
But this will not happen immediately, and the process may not be as disruptive as it might at first appear.
As ever, British climate policy will be shaped by what emerges in Europe. And converting the EU’s 30% from a political declaration into EU legislation and policy requires a complex, difficult set of negotiations between member states, the European Commission and European Parliament which will determine how these further cuts are to be achieved and how the burden should be shared. It will take at least a couple of years, with some former Warsaw Pact states and Italy probably resisting.
David Baldock, director of the Institute for European Environmental Policy, says several directives will have to be revised and extra finance found for eastern European member states. The caps on emissions set within the EU emissions trading scheme (EU ETS) will be shrunk, while carbon dioxide emissions standards for major power stations might be introduced.
Other ingredients of the package will probably include tougher energy efficiency standards for a range of buildings, products, electrical appliances and cars and a revision of the ‘effort sharing’ directive such that individual member states make further cuts to emissions not covered by the EU ETS. There could be measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from European farming. The commission is unlikely to propose higher targets for renewable energy sources because the levels set by the existing Renewable Energy Directive are regarded as probably unattainable.
However, much of the deeper emissions cuts in the UK and across the EU would be delivered largely by buying emissions credits from developing countries rather than by domestic action. Any achievable global agreement on climate change would involve large supplies of these carbon credits flowing from the developing to the developed world at a reasonably affordable price.
But while it looks as if any conceivable outcome at Copenhagen would make little immediate difference to UK policy on climate change, a weak, ineffectual agreement in Denmark could start changing things within a couple of years.
The UK may have its own ambitious emissions-cutting targets backed by legislation and carbon budgets, but it is far from having all the detailed policies and regulations required to strike them. Nor does it have the promise of the very large energy and infrastructure investments also required. These will cost tens of billions of pounds a year, financed through general taxation or higher energy and product prices. There will be resistance from large sections of business and the public.
This resistance will become stronger, and probably better organised, if the UK and EU remain ahead of the rest of the world in taking action to reduce emissions. Campaigners urging UK leadership will not disappear, but they may be outnumbered.
If the US and China are not strongly and convincingly engaged in reducing emissions within a couple of years, the UK government may be forced to change course by domestic political pressure.
Andrew Pendleton, who analyses climate policy for the Institute for Public Policy Research, said the “political space” for leadership on climate change could shrink drastically. “Politicians might start to get cold feet.”
And Stephen Hale, director of the think tank Green Alliance, maintains that a weak agreement in Copenhagen with little progress on securing a global deal in the months afterwards “could see the UK consensus evaporate incredibly quickly”.
Ministers would probably start putting more emphasis on anticipating and adapting to climate change, and less on reducing emissions. The UK’s carbon budgets would not necessarily be abolished or revised in a hurry, but if they were broken the government might do little more than shrug its shoulders.
In short, Copenhagen matters a great deal to UK politics and policy on the environment, energy and climate change. A robust agreement on 19 December would bring certainty and a strong following wind for the low-carbon voyage the UK is embarking on. During the final countdown this outcome seemed unlikely.