Going for broke in Copenhagen

20th November 2009 By: Harald Winkler

The future of the climate change regime is to be decided in Copenhagen. It is not looking pretty. The US is not ready to put a firm number to the emission cuts it knows it must do. The European Union (EU) has proposed a step-up in finance, but still expects developing countries to pay in even more. And most other industrialised countries are hiding behind these two players.

This is a predictable state of affairs at this stage of the negotiations. No one wants to play their hand too early. What progressive developing countries need to do in this situation is to go for broke. Only by being bold about an ‘ambitious but realistic’ outcome will there be a chance of a long-term deal that keeps temperature increases below 2º C.

From December 7 to 18, the negotiations under the United Nations Framework Conven- tion on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its Kyoto Protocol will take place in Copenhagen. Two years back, it was agreed that this would be the meeting to chart the future. A few months back, four possible scenarios were being painted for the outcome of Copenhagen.

The ideal scenario would have seen serious money flow into adaptation, helping all deve- loping countries to deal with the negative impacts of climate change – with emphasis on the poor. All industrialised countries would have agreed to deep, mandatory, absolute cuts in their emissions, ratcheting up the stringency of targets under Kyoto and bringing the US on board with something comparable. In response, some developing countries would make the move from qualitative to quantitative mitigation commitments. Commitments to acting on limiting the growth of emissions would be a major step forward, while maintaining a clear distinction between Northern commitments and Southern action. The North would accept responsibility for its much greater share of historical emissions, encouraging leadership in the South to take responsibility for the future. The extent of action in the South would depend on support – in the form of finance, technology and capacity. All this would have been tied up in a shared vision. The headline would have been ‘Together, we can save the planet’.

This scenario, sad to say, seems out of reach – barring a political miracle. There are many reasons for this, but what stands out are the two M-factors – the numbers for mitigation and money. The US, under the Barack Obama administration, has re-engaged in multilateral talks, but the change in tone is not (yet) matched with change in substance.

The US, funda- mentally, remains inward looking, attaching much more weight to healthcare and midterm elections than multilateral negotiations. President Obama is spending his political capital on healthcare, not on climate. The US approach is marked by exceptionalism, a conviction of the uniqueness of its domestic process. Despite being responsible for 21% of greenhouse-gas emissions and having 4,6% of the world’s population, it wants a special dispensation that would allow it more space to pollute more for longer. By dint of sheer repetition, it has persuaded the rest of the world that it will never sign Kyoto, and that this is acceptable. The US refuses to put forward its number on mitigation until legislation passes the Senate – it may try a ‘provisional’ number.

This makes life easier for Japan, Canada and Russia – they want to jump from Kyoto and do things the US way – in conformity with domestic, not international, law. And no one can fairly expect China to move before the US does.

The EU has long cultivated its image as climate leader. But, at the September round of negotiations in Bangkok, it started to show its other face and made it clear that it was ready to abandon Kyoto. Effectively, the EU is also joining the US track, not finding the strength to stand up to the Obama administration. It is holding onto the quaint belief that the ‘best of Kyoto’ can be cut and pasted into a new agreement unchanged (it is not specifying which parts are vrot) and that the US Senate would ratify a weaker treaty (by no means a given).

Quietly, the EU knows we will lose the teeth of Kyoto – the compliance regime. And while it at least mentions a sum of money, it does not specify how much developing countries must cough up. That would take the climate regime back more than a decade, to 1997, and a free-for-all, bottom-up pledge-based negotiation. The only consequences of not complying would be a loss of reputation – and even that is subject to spin. Only strong action by the Africa Group kept the Kyoto track alive in Barcelona.

Without numbers on mitigation and money, the scenario moves to second-best – a founda- tional political agreement in Copenhagen. Even this will require some major political shifts, not only from Ministers but also from a few heads of State. This is the first sense in which South Africa should go for broke – work hard to get as much of what would be a breakthrough for us into the foundational package. It would contain the heart of the bargain, in political terms. Some key numbers, and a bit of legal text, would remain to be filled in. But the options on the crunch issues are clear enough that we could still have the headlines on December 19: ‘Solid foundations laid to save our planet, but not there yet’.

Scenario three is depressing – it is the Green- wash. Some have suggested that Copenhagen is “doomed to success”. Public scrutiny and the weight of expectations are so huge that the pressure on governments is immense to declare a ‘success’ whatever is agreed on in Copenhagen, no matter how weak. This would be the end of the road, with not even a sense of failure to mobilise renewed action.

The Prime Minister of Denmark mooted a deal that is “politically binding”, rather than what is needed – legally binding. Even closer to the convention process, its chairperson and the executive secretary both stated in Barcelona that a treaty was out of reach in Copenhagen.

The fourth scenario is collapse. Strangely, this is not as bad as the previous one, depending on how it is reached. Of course, if climate talks collapse in acrimony, because there is no political will to agree at all, that will not help. South Africa has long been constructively engaged in multilateral climate talks. If we had to walk away because the deal was simply too bad to sign up to, that would be a sad day. But there might be a time where this would be needed. That is the situation where progressive countries would have to go for broke in the second sense – and only if the first has failed. If ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, then the deal should not be closed in Copenhagen, but postponed for three to five months to allow more time for negotiations, and, hopefully, for the US to come back with its mitigation and finance numbers.

Why three to five months? We can’t make it six months – that is the soccer World Cup, and then we would have to argue South African exceptionalism. We could make it 12 months – but the climate simply does not have more time. We need to go for broke. Now.