Failure at Copenhagen

President Nasheed of the Maldives briefs reporters during the Copenhagen climate change talks (picture Adam Welz)

They say that the definition of insanity is to keep repeating the same action over and over again expecting a different result each time. 193 national governments were represented at the Copenhagen climate talks hoping to find unanimous agreement on how to fight climate change. They failed. Never mind, there is another summit in Mexico next year.

Geoffrey Lean in the Daily Telegraph reports on the chaotic and erratic way in which the summiteers reached their conclusions. Many environmental campaigners are dismayed and disappointed at the failure of Copenhagen to take big enough steps in the fight against climate change: a simple look at the proceedings explains why.

The issues at the Copenhagen summit could be gathered under three main headings: the size and distribution of the cuts in carbon dioxide emissions; scrutiny of the cuts; and turning commitments to cuts into a treaty. Behind all of these lies the defence of national sovereignty.

Taking the issues in reverse order, enshrining a new climate policy in a treaty will give it legal force and constrain, in future, the freedom of action of individual national governments. They will be obliged to take into account the effects of their decisions on other countries. Souverainists think that this is a bad thing: I disagree. People who want a serious international effort to fight climate change will have to make a choice.

Scrutiny is also a threat to national sovereignty as traditionally conceived, but much less of a threat to democracies than to autocracies. Not only will a climate change treaty give rights to other countries, it will also give rights to citizens. Governments will be held to account for their actions and their policies, so that inadequate emissions reductions can be identified and rectified. The democratic system of government is founded on the idea that citizens have rights: the Copenhagen deal will extend that idea at the international level.

But it is the first issue, that of the size and distribution of cuts in carbon dioxide emissions, that is the most important and the most difficult. It is important because, in the end, cuts in carbon dioxide emissions are what will avert the worst consequences of climate change (on the assumption that the broad mass of the world’s scientific knowledge and thinking on the subject is correct) but also because it has the most far-reaching implications for decision-making too.

For all the talk of what is the right percentage to cut emissions by compared with the present level, whether 30 per cent, 50 per cent or 80 per cent, nobody can know for sure. Scientific knowledge on the subject will surely develop over time. Furthermore, no-one can know how successful existing and future policies will be in reducing emissions: that too is unknown. Thirdly, beyond the scale of the cuts, there is the distribution: which countries should make biggest cuts, and how should the poorer ones be compensated? This decision, too, will change over time, as countries develop and get richer (or not). China’s behaviour in Copenhagen, apparently, was influenced by the realisation that it was becoming an industrialised country and would be subject to different rules and expectations in future.

Against all three of these uncertainties, it is not possible that a single summit in Copenhagen this year, or in Mexico next year, or anywhere else the year after, could settle everything. What the world needs to fight climate change is not a treaty but a mechanism. The decisions that are taken need to be revised easily and smoothly as the facts change and as knowledge changes. We cannot imagine that heads of government sitting up all night will solve our problems. It is crazy to use the world’s worst decision-making methods to take the world’s most important decisions. Copenhagen did not address this issue. That is its biggest failure.

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