The Copenhagen meeting finished some time ago now, and didn’t succeed in delivering anything useful. I’ve resisted the temptation to write about it earlier, rather I wanted to see what others said first, before making up my own mind about it. There’s been an awful lot of analysis published in the blogosphere since the meeting ended, I’m sure I’ve not encountered every view, but here are my own conclusions.
One thing is obvious, we did not get the fair, ambitious, and legally binding document we were all hoping for. Not even close. All we got was the ‘Copenhagen accord’, a piece of paper with no legal weight written by a few of the participants. That accord has no numbers in it that we can use to actually set policies. It does not state when emissions should peak, what reduction in emissions is required, in what timescale, or anything like that. There is no way to turn it into a plan of action, to decide how to tackle climate change based on what it says. It is worthless in itself, and is quite possibly worse than having no agreement at all.
By stepping outside the UN framework to produce that accord, those few countries that created it have seriously weakened the UNFCC process.
President Obama announced the accord to the press before most of the national representatives had even seen it, which shows a distinct lack of respect for protocol. How can the UNFCC be taken seriously now that a handful of leaders have ignored it and made up their own agreement?
On the other hand, it is not at all clear that anything else was on the table. I have not seen anything mentioned anywhere that the formal process of the UNFCC had created a document that was ready to be signed at the end of the meeting. If you know otherwise, please let me know via the comments. And, worthless as it is in practise, it is nonetheless significant that America and China have both signed even so weak a document as they did.
In the aftermath, the inevitable finger-pointing has taken place, with most people blaming someone half the world away for the failure. It’s difficult for an observer like myself to know what really happened, who is at fault, and why the process broke down. There was clearly a lot of good intention from many places, I doubt so many world leaders have ever been assembled in one place before. They wouldn’t all go there to look bad, I’m sure many of them wanted to come away with something real. Many countries went to Copenhagen having made pledges which, while inadequate, were much stronger than anything they have comitted to in the past. So what happened?
President Obama was clearly a key player, and he went there empty-handed. He didn’t offer anything new, much to the disappointment of many. The offer of ‘mobilising a fund of $100 billion annually for mitigation’ by 2020 is not worth much. Americans spend that much each year on bottled water, so it’s not exactly digging deep into their pockets. Besides, the International Energy Agency estimates that, for each year we delay action, the cost of tackling climate change will increase by $500 billion. So having $100 billion per year by 2020 really isn’t impressive.
It seems likely that, had America made a bigger comittment to cutting its own emissions, the conference could have gained a lot of momentum. With one of the highest levels of emissions per person in the entire world, America, like many western countires, has a clear debt to pay for the wealth it has accumulated. People were looking to President Obama to take the leading role he claimed he would when he was sworn into office. He failed to do that. To be fair, when you see the political pressure and tactics wielded by the fossil-fuel industries in America, it’s hardly surprising that President Obama couldn’t offer more. He simply doesn’t have that much power.
George Monbiot of the Guardian points out that Obama demanded concessions, despite offered nothing in return. On the other hand, Mark Lynas blames China for systematically blocking all attempts to name concrete targets. In Mark’s own words:
China, backed at times by India, then proceeded to take out all the numbers that mattered. A 2020 peaking year in global emissions, essential to restrain temperatures to 2C, was removed and replaced by woolly language suggesting that emissions should peak “as soon as possible”. The long-term target, of global 50% cuts by 2050, was also excised. No one else, perhaps with the exceptions of India and Saudi Arabia, wanted this to happen. I am certain that had the Chinese not been in the room, we would have left Copenhagen with a deal that had environmentalists popping champagne corks popping in every corner of the world.
You can read more on Mark’s views of Copenhagen at the New York Times dotEarth blog, it’s worth reading.
I think that both George and Mark make good arguments, as do many other writers, but I have to say I give a lot of weight to Mark’s analysis. Mark was in the room for the negotiations, he saw it all first-hand. I’ve read Mark’s book, Six Degrees, and was impressed at how well he took such a large body of research and summarised it in terms we can all understand. He’s also one of the few environmentalists who has come to understand the importance of nuclear power in addressing climate change. That’s why I trust him as an observer and a critical thinker, and take his opinion seriously.
So, given that the UN framework didn’t yield a result, and that those who wanted to do something were prevented from doing so by those that don’t, what does that mean for the future? Here, the blogosphere seems to be more in agreement, people-power still matters, and there are a lot of people who aren’t giving up.
People from all walks of life have been calling for action on climate change. George Monbiot, in that same article above, is quite blunt about blaming people for complacency.
I guess he’s right. I know I came late to the party, and wish I had acted sooner.
At the other end of the scale, a group of international investors managing $13 trillion in assets also called for strong action (full report (PDF)). You can bet that they wouldn’t be asking for strong legislation to attack global warming unless they thought that it was needed for the global economy to survive.
Young people are getting in on the act too. Take a look at the video below, produced by the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. Their message to world leaders is load and clear:
It’s great to know so many people from such different levels of society want action, but it won’t be enough to simply tell governments to act. It’s important that people both understand what is needed and agree on how to act, so a clear, unified, and sensible message is sent to political leaders. One of the biggest problems here is that a lot of people think that renewable energy sources can solve our energy needs, and many environmental groups remain opposed to nuclear power.
Advocates of ‘renewable energy’ regularly fail to consider the cost or effort required to satisfy demand. Replacing conventional electricity production with renewable sources is simply not sensible when you look at the amount of raw material (e.g. concrete and steel) that is needed, or at the amount of land that would be needed for the installation. Never mind the fact that solar or wind power are useless in a cold spell of weather like we are having at the moment, so we would still need something reliable to provide power when we need it most. See David Mackay‘s free ebook, Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air, for some clear discussion about the theoretical limits of renewable energy and decide for yourself if you think it’s really a viable option.
I’ve written before about green-groups misguided opposition to nuclear power. Few of them seem to understand the realities of modern nuclear power, which is cheaper, cleaner, safer, and more reliable than it was during the cold-war days of the nuclear arms race. By perpetuating this myth, they are supporting the fossil-fuel industry. How? as Steve Kirsch said recently:
Needless to say, weather-dependant renewable energy cannot provide that base-load, and the only real competition to fossil-fuel is nuclear power. If I were a fossil-fuel CEO, I would certainly want to spread fear of nuclear power, and would happily let the green-groups do my dirty work for me!
If you want a good idea of what it takes to replace fossil-fuel with either renewable or nuclear power, take a look at bravenewclimate.com. They consider the practicalities of cost and build-rate for a range of options, and conclude that anything other than massive deployment of nuclear power simply won’t cut emissions in time.
Until green-groups embrace the need for nuclear power instead of renewable energy, we are not sending a coherent or useful message to world leaders, one that they can use to enact legislation that will genuinely cut emissions. Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu surely understands this, so President Obama must know it too. Small wonder that he couldn’t offer much at Copenhagen when the environmental movement don’t want the changes that will work, and the coal and oil industries are spending a fortune to mislead and misinform the American public.
That’s not to say that this problem is specific to America, it’s a drama that is repeated the world over. The sooner we realise that, the sooner we can start making the changes that matter. Maybe then we can persuade others to do the same too.