What becomes of the broken Hartwell?

Calls for a radical re-framing of policies to deal with climate change are intuitively attractive — after all, current national and international policies don’t seem to be doing much to curb rising emissions. The latest effort comes from a group of developed world academics brought together by London School of Economics professor Gwyn Prins, and takes the form of The Hartwell Paper [PDF] — a document based on discussions held in February at the English country houseof the same name. It suggests ditching Kyoto and all its structures, and instead tackling climate change with policies that approach the problem more obliquely. The authors claim:

…it is not possible to have a ‘climate policy’ that has emissions reductions as the all encompassing goal. However, there are many other reasons why the decarbonisation of the global economy is highly desirable. Therefore, the Paper advocates a radical reframing – an inverting – of approach: accepting that decarbonisation will only be achieved successfully as a benefit contingent upon other goals which are politically attractive and relentlessly pragmatic.

Sounds reasonable enough at first reading, but my suspicions were roused when I read beyond the executive summary.


Prins et al derive the need for their new approach from what they describe as two watersheds that were crossed in late 2009: the failure of COP15 in Copenhagen to deliver on its promise of a global deal to follow Kyoto, and what they call “an accelerated erosion of public trust [in climate science] following the posting […] of more than a 1,000 emails from the University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit” last November. Copenhagen clearly did not live up to expectations, and the UN-mediated policy process may well have lost impetus, but the authors go on to assert that the CRU email theft, and the subsequent press furore and investigations means that “the legitimacy of the institutions of climate policy and science are no longer assured”. That, it seems to me, is a very long bow to draw. To see the Hartwell take on the emails applauded by Steve McIntyre and that they approvingly reference Andrew (Bishop Hill) Montford’s book The Hockey Stick Illusion suggests to me that the authors are coming at the issue with their own set of preconceptions — a framing they want to impose on the issue. A look at the author list (Roger Pielke Jr, Nordhaus and Shellenburger from the US think tank The Breakthrough Institute, amongst others) hardly dispels that notion…

When they consider the underlying science, they are at pains to misrepresent what’s going on:

Climate change was brought to the attention of policy-makers by scientists. From the outset, these scientists also brought their preferred solutions to the table in US Congressional hearings and other policy forums, all bundled. The proposition that ‘science’ somehow dictated particular policy responses, encouraged – indeed instructed – those who found those particular strategies unattractive to argue about the science. So, a distinctive characteristic of the climate change debate has been of scientists claiming with the authority of their position that their results dictated particular policies; of policy makers claiming that their preferred choices were dictated by science, and both acting as if ‘science’ and ‘policy’ were simply and rigidly linked as if it were a matter of escaping from the path of an oncoming tornado.

If “the science” has been unhelpful, then this misrepresentation of the message is even more so. The basic message from “the science” is clear enough. There’s too much carbon in the atmosphere, and adding more is going to make life very uncomfortable — all life, not just human beings — in the not too far distant future. Did scientists really bundle this message with “particular policy responses”? Only if reducing carbon emissions can be considered a policy response — but that’s the very response Prins et al seems to want to dance around. Decarbonisation they can countenance, but not now, not quantified. They want to ignore the quantification of the size of the problem we face because it might be inconvenient:

We share the common view that it would be prudent to accelerate the historical trend of reducing the carbon intensity of our economies, which has been a by-product of innovation since the late eighteenth century. However, we do not recommend doing so by processes that injure economic growth, which we think – and the history of climate policy demonstrates – is politically impossible with informed democratic consent.

What if political impossibility is confronting the harsh impact of physical reality? The Hartwell Paper assumes that we have the luxury of time, that we can step away from the progress made over the last 20 years , and somehow recast international policy according to a wishlist of interventions that might (if we’re lucky) set us on the right path. They imply that we need not face reality now, that we should take the Capability Brown approach to a country house, up a winding path that yields carefully framed glimpses of our goal, rather than march straight towards a target defined by our understanding of physical reality.

There is some good analysis of The Hartwell Paper at the Economist (with nice Eno reference), and by Richard Black at the BBC. Both writers suggest that whatever the merit of the Paper’s recommendations, the authors cannot ignore where we are now. We may not want to start from where we are, but we have no choice. In a wider perspective, the Paper is arguing for a bottom up approach to carbon reductions, looking for the low hanging fruit — efficiencies, black carbon reduction — while the Kyoto approach is top-down, starting (with luck) from an informed appreciation of what we would do well to avoid. It seems obvious to me that we need both approaches, at a national as well as international level. Setting a 40% target for emissions reduction by 2020 is just as valid as mandating the use of low energy lightbulbs, or encouraging the adoption of electric vehicles.

Prins, Pielke Jr et al prefer to ignore what we really know about the climate system and the one-way nature of the changes we’re imposing on it (who can put a species back after it’s gone, or reconstruct a coal seam?), adopting instead a high-minded but ultimately wishy-washy stew of policies that look a lot more like sticking plasters than a remedy. And, being a cynic, I can’t resist asking the cui bono question… who might benefit most from the policy mix they propose? I leave the answer as an exercise for the reader.

[Jimmy Ruffin]

A positive view of Copenhagen

coplogoI wrote a column early in December trying to discern reasons for hope even in the face of the likelihood that Copenhagen was not going to produce a legally binding agreement. In the event it not only did not produce a legal agreement, but endorsed an Accord quite different from the kind of document we were expecting.  I’ve asked myself since whether the measure of cautious hope I  expressed in advance was foolishly optimistic.  Certainly some commentators have suggested so. But not all. Joseph Romm’s Climate Progress website has been upbeat about the Accord.  And today he has drawn attention to an article in the Huffington Post by David Doniger, policy director of the US Natural Resources Defence Council’sclimate centre.  Doniger hails the Accord as a gridlock breakthrough on three counts:

First, it provides for real cuts in heat-trapping carbon pollution by all of the world’s big emitters.  Second, it establishes a transparent framework for evaluating countries’ performance against their commitments.  And third, it will start an unprecedented flow of resources to help poor and vulnerable nations cope with climate impacts, protect their forests, and adopt clean energy technologies.

Doniger writes warmly of Obama’s personal involvement in forging the agreement and rescuing the conference from collapse. Brazil’s President Lula commented that it was unlike the kind of discussions that Heads of State normally have, and reminded him of his days as a trade union negotiator. I have read some accounts of the events which suggest that Obama showed little concern for climate change and was revealed as just another political leader manoeuvering to preserve the perceived interests of his own country ahead of those of the global community. It would be deeply disappointing if that were the case. Earlier this year I read both of Obama’s books, Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope, as well as the collection of his election policies and speeches in Change We Can Believe In, and felt they represented an authentic and decent commitment to human welfare. I have written positively on Hot Topic several times about his unequivocal statements on climate change and the measures his administration has already begun to take to address it. “The science is beyond dispute and the facts are clear. Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all.” I certainly don’t want to hastily credit the possibility that this has all been shown up as nothing more than hot air.

Back to Doniger, who addresses some of the concerns he has seen expressed about the Accord. First is the argument that the Accord isn’t enough to keep us under 2 degrees. He concedes that the agreement is not in itself ambitious enough to achieve that, but points out that Obama was quite candid that it is only a first step. Doniger thinks a significant one:

The real goal going into Copenhagen was to get the U.S., China, and the other fast-growing developing countries to take their first steps to curb their emissions.  That goal was achieved.  And that was no mean feat.

A second expressed concern is that emission cuts aren’t specified. In reply Doniger points to the open enrollment period through to the end of January which allows countries to record their emission reduction commitments. He considers that a year ago the targets and policy announcements on offer today from big developing countries would have been unthinkable. The Accord creates a dynamic situation, with the potential for a virtuous circle of countries reinforcing their commitments over time in response to similar moves by others.

In reply to the objection that the commitments aren’t legally binding, Doniger replies that the Accord sidestepped “legally binding” in favour of action commitments from both the big developing countries and the U.S.  Otherwise there was unlikely to have been an agreement. And there are other ways of getting there:

If countries can be bound by a web of interests and economic forces to make and follow through on commitments, that will mean more than any legalistic formulation of their duties.

In response to the objection that the Accord threatens the future of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Doniger points to the limitations of the Conference of the Parties in requiring consensus of all 193 countries – a requirement which finally resulted in the Conference agreeing to “take note” of the Accord rather than adopt it, because of the continuing opposition of Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, and the Sudan.

Doniger expects the government of the new Accord is likely to depend in part on the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate. Gareth noted in his Copenhagen post that the mix of this organisation covers just about all the necessary bases.  This doesn’t mean the UNFCCC will necessarily have no function, as Doniger sees it, but it will need to find ways of working which do not leave it open to rogue obstructionists and it will need to embrace the new agreement wholeheartedly.

Finally Doniger addresses the claim that the Accord won’t move the Senate.  It will:

[It] delivers the two principal things that swing Senators have demanded from the international process:  meaningful commitments to reducing the emissions of key developing countries, and a transparent framework for evaluating their performance against those commitments.

Political disappointments are not hard to find in the issue of climate change. I’m willing to hope that the kind of analysis of the Accord that Doniger and others offer proves to have some substance.

After Copenhagen: new world disorder

coplogoIt’s a bit like reading the runes — trawling through reactions to the events of the last couple of weeks, trying to work out what the Copenhagen Accord means. I don’t mean a parsing of the words, though translating the language of diplomacy is never trivial, but what the various parties to the Accord, and the rest of the world, think it means — and crucially, what that implies for future action to reduce emissions.

For background, read this excellent BBC analysis of Copenhagen, and Joe Romm’s interesting take at Climate Progress (which refers to Bill McKibben’s reactions at Grist, plus there’s a more considered McKibben article at e360), but the article that really helped to crystallise my thoughts is Mark Lynas’ insider’s account of the final phases of negotiations:

Continue reading “After Copenhagen: new world disorder”

Copenhagen: no FAB deal

Barry Coates’ last blog from the Danish capital looks at what was actually achieved and where we go from here, and includes his final analysis of the conference. The full set of Barry’s updates are posted at Oxfam’s web site and also at Pacific Scoop.

Day 13 – Saturday 19th December

Looking back, looking forward

This is the way the summit ends. Not with a bang, but with a whimper. 119 world leaders came, they saw and they certainly didn’t conquer. They were captured by their limited vision, their vested interests and the lack of trust between them that has it roots in long standing divisions, including a denial of historical responsibility on the part of the major developed countries.

There was some serious damage done to reputations. The United Nations processes were deeply flawed, countries like New Zealand have been exposed as self-interested blockers and President Obama doesn’t walk on water. Some leaders came out with credit. The vulnerable countries, particularly the Pacific, negotiated hard and fought for 1.5°C to be included in the Copenhagen Accord – they succeeded but their efforts to have a clear aim for a legally binding treaty through this process was stripped out late last night. President Lula from Brazil assumed the mantle of world statesman with a powerful speech and an offer to help other developing countries. Thousands of civil society activists were able to build public support and attention across the world.

But to little avail. The final agreement was empty of content and extremely weak on the level of ambition. We came into the Summit calling for a Fair, Ambitious and Binding deal. We lost the Fair early on when Annex 1 countries could not agree to a financing package beyond the next three years. It was closely followed by the Ambition – leaders could not even commit to a global goal of keeping global temperature rise below 2°C. Then in the wee hours of this morning, the Binding was stripped out in a very untransparent way.

Next steps are for emissions reduction offers to be tabled by 31st January 2010. As explained below, that is a dangerous development, given the lack of political will to decent offers from Annex 1 countries. Then there will be a two week negotiating session in Bonn Germany from 31 May to 11 June 2010, followed by the next annual UN Climate Change Conference (CoP 16) towards the end of 2010 in Mexico City. None of that gives us much confidence that they will be able to muster the political will or bridge the political divides that are needed to provide the political mandates that are essential for a FAB deal.

Because their job is not done, nor is ours. We need to build a far more powerful campaign for the future. We must ensure that the politicians who caused this problem are held to account for this missed opportunity.

I am in a hotel with Oxfam colleagues from around the world, all having worked so hard but feeling pretty empty after this empty outcome. We are off to a bar to cheer ourselves up and to ask some of the tough questions about where to from here. And I will do so with partners in the Global Campaign for Climate Action (the TckTckTck campaign). Anything is on the table for re-thinking. Except wavering in our determination to secure this FAB deal. Anything else is unthinkable to ourselves, our kids, our planet and for billions of vulnerable people.

Since waking up this morning, I have been working with colleagues to prepare the following analysis. I hope you find it useful. But now I’m signing off from this blog and will take a few days off, to recover my health and my sleep. Happy Xmas to you all and thanks for reading these posts.

What the Copenhagen Decisions mean

December 19, 2009: There is extreme urgency. The scale of the crisis means that emissions need to peak within five years. People are already suffering unnecessarily from a lack of protection and support. We have just lost a year. The hope of millions of people has been frustrated and potentially a base of political support has been lost.

Status of Decisions:

AWG-LCA: Document UNFCCC/CP/2009/L6

The document setting out the conclusions of the work of the AWG-LCA was agreed. Tuvalu and Barbados sought to ensure the process would lead to a binding protocol.

CoP Decision:

“CoP takes note of the Copenhagen Accord 18 Dec 2009.” It is not agreed, only noted. Because there was not consensus on the Accord, it was agreed the Parties supporting it would be listed.

The Reasons for the Impasse

There were two interrelated issues that were to blame for the turmoil during the summit, although it should be recognised that the roots of this failure extend back at least to the initiation of the Bali Action Plan.

1. The Process

There were a small number of countries that came to this Summit without the intention of negotiating in good faith. They were generally countries that have massive vested interests in fossil fuels, or that exclusively focus on their short-term competitiveness. These countries often undermined the negotiations dynamic.

Many countries were left out of the ‘friends of the Chair” process and withheld their agreement. While there was an attempt to include negotiating groups, the selection of participants was not open and transparent. The problem was also that the Danish Presidency grossly mismanaged the process. It was most unfortunate that Heads of State found themselves effectively negotiating from the podium, rehearsing their national positions rather than proposing breakthroughs which had not been achieved in the preparatory meetings.

The usual brinkmanship was relied on to deliver an agreement after hours of late night working. This forced an agreement under conditions of tiredness, stress and bilateral influence (which opens up the potential for bullying and favours, reinforcing the positions of the larger and more powerful countries).

The breakdown of this process may signal that the days of stitching up deals in small selective groups and then expecting all countries to sign up are over. There must be questions over the style used for consensus building and decision making.

Climate change negotiations are starting to look eerily like trade negotiations, including the dominance of commercial self-interest in the position. We need processes which move us away from competitive negotiations, where countries try to minimise their concessions, to collaborative actions informed by the science, for example, conducting problem-solving sessions in mixed groups rather than blocks. It is clear that the UNFCCC negotiating process would need substantial reform to handle the complexity of this issue.

While the security challenges of such a meeting are huge, it is inexcusable that the forward planning did not take account of needing civil society and other observers to be present for transparency and legitimacy.

2. The Substance

The Annex 1 countries didn’t come to Copenhagen with sufficient offers and then didn’t improve them. Even the offer on long term finance was full of caveats and loopholes. The rich countries did not make offers that were based, even loosely, on sound science. We were told there would be final offers made during the last hours. These were never tabled.

Some developing countries came with proposals and concessions (eg. China on MRV, Brazil on financial contribution for developing countries and MRV, South Africa offer on emissions reductions). An analysis of Annex 1 offers compared to major developing countries offers on a consistent basis of below BAU (Business as Usual) is likely to show that at least some major developing countries are more ambitious than average Annex 1 levels (particularly when omissions and loopholes offered to Annex 1 countries such as on surplus AAUs, LULUCF accounting rules and bunker fuels are taken into account).

The loss of full agreement, that would have included international MRV for China, means that we potentially lose an important step that could help unlock the negotiations. Also at risk from the lack of full agreement is the agreement to the starter funding for adaptation and the goal on long term finance (even if not a commitment).

On the other side, the lack of full agreement means some of the unhelpful parts of the Accord are not locked in, such as a systematic lowering of ambition and a lack of clear commitment even to 2°C. The process for agreeing mid-term targets, without a criteria for burden sharing and a top down process to test the adequacy of targets, is of serious concern. Continuing the current pledge and review approach undermines equitable burden sharing and a level of ambition based on science. Current emissions reductions pledges by Annex 1 countries are outweighed by the loopholes. On current pledges, we are headed for a 3.9°C temperature rise.

On the positive side, there is at least a consolidation into a Chair’s text for AWG-KP and AWG-LCA which has helped unblock the large accumulation of previous texts that Parties refused to take off the table.

The Politics:

The agreement with China is a step forward in terms of gaining political capital for the Obama Administration’s position in the US; however, a full agreement to the Copenhagen Accord would have been more helpful. Unfortunately, the adversarial atmosphere in Copenhagen might be used to provide opponents of climate change and multilateralism with ammunition. More broadly, the lack of clear success might mean that some Heads of State would be wary of coming to the next Summit on climate change.

We face major challenges in calling for Parties to get back to negotiations given the likelihood that there will be a widespread perception that this would fail again. The lack of trust is even deeper than it was before Copenhagen (it should be observed this is not unique to the UNFCCC process – the Doha trade negotiations process isn’t much better). Moving forward, we will be challenged to say what has changed in the underlying political conditions where 116 Heads of State have failed.

Copenhagen closes: too little, too late

coplogoThe Copenhagen climate conference finally wrapped up in the wee small hours of Sunday morning NZ time (3:26pm Saturday in Denmark), with delegates agreeing to “take note of” a “Copenhagen Accord” [PDF here]. The agreement sets no legally binding targets, establishes no follow-on framework for Kyoto, only “recognises” the need to stay under 2ºC, and that parties “should cooperate in achieving the peaking of global and national emissions as soon as possible”. On the plus side, the accord does provide for assistance to developing countries of US$30 billion over 2010-12, and commits to a “goal” of US$100 billion a year by 2020. The meeting ended after an all night plenary session in which a group of developing countries including Bolivia, Cuba, Sudan and Venezuela blocked progress because of the lack of binding targets for the developed world.

Although late drafts of an agreement included references to 80% cuts by 2050 for developed countries, this disappeared from the final text. All the Accord requires is that developed countries “commit to implement individually or jointly the quantified economy- wide emissions targets for 2020″, with these targets to be appended to the agreement by the end of January 2010. Developing countries can do the same, for their preferred emissions targets. This will all be reviewed by 2015, and in a nod to the small island nations, the review will consider strengthening the goal to a 1.5ºC limit.

The final deal was stitched together by the US and China, in a meeting with India, Brazil and South Africa, and effectively imposed on the rest of the world. Here’s how BBC environment correspondent Richard Black describes it:

Ministers and scientists and campaigners who dedicated huge swathes of the last year to making a tough deal happen watched aghast as Chinese and US leaders and their entourages flew in, took over the agenda and emerged with what was basically their own private deal, with leaders announcing it live on television before others realised it had happened.

As you’d expect, leaders from EU countries and the developing world that really don’t like this deal have been assuming rictus grins and telling us it’s a “good first step”.

New Zealand’s climate change ambassador Adrian Macey was equally unimpressed, describing the process as “appalling” in the Herald this morning. Sudan’s environment minister said the weak deal would commit Africa to a holocaust, and Ian Fry, spokesman for Tuvalu said it would spell the end of his country. More reaction at the BBC report & analysis, Telegraph, Guardian (editorial), New York Times, and Stuff.

My take? Copenhagen was always going to end with a deal of some sort, because too many leaders had too much mana invested in the process for there to be an overt collapse. However, the deal that’s been done — essentially a private affair between the US and China, imposed on the rest of the world and accepted only because something is better than nothing — delivers little in the way of concrete progress. Unless the momentum that built up before COP15 began can be maintained through the next year, and targets agreed and implemented in some sort of credible fashion, then the prospects for emissions peaking early enough to give the world a chance of staying under 2ºC will be essentially zero.

What are we left with? I suspect this process will bumble on for years, with many fine words and minimal action. One report suggested that China’s real position was that it would prioritise economic growth until climate impacts grew too severe, then go for rapid adaptation. If that’s true, then we’re all toast. Nothing really transformative will be attempted until the effects of warming are so severe that the world will be plunged into a wartime response to the issue. That’s when the climate commitment — the 30 years of warming in the pipeline — will really bite. I fear that the only interesting questions now are how soon, and how bad will it be?