Newsletter No 3 september 2009

IVM Director Frans Berkhout - Copenhagen and after


copenhagenThe next three months will see a growing tumult of public debate, media attention and political negotiation leading up to the Copenhagen climate conference. Like the coming of a child, it is easy to be so focused on the symbolic moment of the birth that we forget that life will carry on afterwards. There is no doubt that the COP at Copenhagen has huge political significance and that the consequences of the decisions made (or not made) will reverberate for another decade and more. But we should also not expect too much and remember that Copenhagen is one moment in a long political process. Here are my predictions or what happens after Copenhagen:

1. Long follow-up negotiations: Come what may, there will need to be some form of new agreement at Copenhagen. This is because of the huge political stakes that exist amongst the Europeans and the Americans for such an agreement and because of the recognition amongst the large non-Annex 1 countries (China, India and Brazil) that they need to become active partners in the global climate regime. They know climate change affects them and that the earlier they engage the more influence they will have on developments – all of them already have climate policies. Even a weak agreement will be hailed as a success. But the mind-boggling complexity of the ‘global deal’ that needs to be negotiated (broader participation by countries, financing, technology, adaptation and so on) means that the most we can expect from Copenhagen is a broad framework, with the details to be worked out. I believe that as at Kyoto, many new principles will be agreed at Copenhagen, but that long negotiations will be needed to agree and codify the rules for implementing measures. We should remember that the Marrakech Accords which codified the 1997 Kyoto Protocol were only agreed in 2001 and that the Protocol only entered into force eight years later in 2005.

2. Climate policy objectives remain contested: The fabled 2-degree target (the objective to limit mean global surface temperature rises to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial averages),  originally adopted by the European Council in 1996, was endorsed by the G20, including the United States, in July this year. Despite the controversy surrounding the target, it has become a de facto definition of ‘dangerous climate change’ at the global level and a touchstone for emerging commitments in international climate policy, including emissions reductions targets. But while the 2-degree target has been useful as a focusing device (what sociologists term a boundary object) it remains vulnerable and debate about it is unlikely to cease. For one thing, it may be the wrong target. On the basis of ice-sheet and other evidence, Jim Hansen argues that atmospheric concentrations of 400-450 ppm CO2eq that should deliver 2-degrees of warming is already too high and that we should be aiming for 350 ppm (by Copenhagen concentrations will be near to 390 ppm). On the other hand, many economists, including IVM’s Richard Tol, argue that there is no good economic rationale for taking 2-degrees and that it may be more reasonable to choose a less stringent target. But there are other sorts of objections as well. It is clear that 2-degrees will be catastrophic for many regions, including small island states. And it also seems likely that on current global emissions projections 2-degrees will not be met. The models show that to get to 2-degrees we would need globally negative emissions by 2070 under a so-called ‘over-shoot scenario’. This means that we need to plan for something potentially much worse – say, 4-degrees. But this is a message climate policy makers do not want to hear. They fear it will undermine emissions reductions commitments. For all these reasons, I believe the debate about climate policy objectives will continue to rage even after Copenhagen. We have a role as scientists to point to the problems.

3. Compliance remains a major issue: A central paradox in international climate policy is that while there is now broad agreement on the need for early action and eventually for radical emissions reductions, there is still little evidence that carbon emissions curves are turning downward. Although the global recession has had some impact on recent trends, renewed economic growth and concerns about energy security seem bound to bring sharp emissions growth in the coming years. A welter of climate policy measures have been introduced, but the jury is still out on their effectiveness. A recent meta-analysis of evaluations of European climate policies conducted at IVM (in collaboration with UEA, Lund and JRC-Ispra) found little clear evidence that they had been effective in cutting greenhouse gas emissions. We know that many countries, including European countries, will not achieve their Kyoto reduction targets and that these targets were extremely unchallenging compared to the massive reductions that are now envisaged. All our research points to the economic and political advantages of a cooperative global climate regime in achieving emissions reductions over a fragmented approach. But coordination and burden-sharing only works if there are incentives for those who comply and penalties for non-compliers. And we also know that making compliance regimes work in the international system work is very difficult. Copenhagen will be a place of well-made plans, but afterwards we will be left with the problem of making them stick.

4. Dealing with the impacts will change climate politics: As IVM’s Joyeeta Gupta has made clear many times, climate change is at its heart a problem of justice. Who should have rights to emit and who has rights to be protected from harm. Unlike Kyoto, climate impacts and adaptation to them will be part of a deal done at Copenhagen. Climate Policy 2.0 needs to strike a balance between mitigation and adaptation, especially as the effects become more apparent. This is not straightforward. The already vulnerable in poor countries are likely to be the greatest victims of climate change while the main perpetrators of climate change – producers and consumers in rich countries – are relatively less vulnerable and have the capacity to adapt. Recent research at IVM suggests that taking account of the historical responsibility for climate change and the capacity to pay of rich countries, citizens in EU countries would each need to contribute between US$40-80 per year to pay for adaptation globally (assuming annual adaptation costs of US$100 billion per year – though recent estimates by Martin Parry suggest costs up to three times this amount). The problem is that none of the financing mechanisms being proposed at Copenhagen seem likely to be able to raise this level of funding. Nor is it obvious how such funds would be dispersed – to countries, civil society organisations or individuals? Closing the circle of climate change policy by addressing impacts will lead to a growing awareness of responsibility and gradually to liability frameworks that link carbon-emitting activities with damages to people and things. This will not yet be possible at Copenhagen because the science basis does not yet exist, but when it does it will change everything.

In short, I believe that the climate research and policy agenda beyond Copenhagen is a rich one. This is an issue that will continue to command researchers’ attention because it is vital to societies, but also because it continues to throw up interesting new questions. At IVM we will remain committed to contributing to climate research and to climate solutions. The easiest way to follow our work is to visit our new and completely redesigned website Here’s to the climate negotiators – they’re in for a hell of a night.

Frans Berkhout, 1 September 2009