The devil’s in the detail

Published in the New Statesman, on 6th December 2004.

The next round of negotiations on climate change, beginning in Buenos Aires on 6 December, takes place amid growing alarm among scientists. Climate change seems to be occurring faster and more dramatically than was previously thought. A new analysis, by 250 scientists from the eight nations of the Arctic Council, found that temperatures had risen 4.4 C and the thickness of Arctic ice had halved in the past 30 years. In the past two years there has been a sharp, and as yet unexplained, spike in the rate at which carbon dioxide is increasing in the atmosphere, and there are signs that it is happening again this year.

Yet few policy-makers have high expectations for the Buenos Aires meeting (the “Conference of the Parties”, as it is called), even though the Kyoto Protocol finally comes into force in February, following delivery of Russia’s formal ratification papers to the UN last month. The protocol’s first phase requires industrialised nations to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions by 5.2 per cent from their 1990 levels, by 2012. This is a very small step towards the 60 per cent reductions by 2050 that many, including Tony Blair, believe is the minimum required to ensure a safe, stable climate.

The protocol also requires negotiations on a second phase of reductions to begin in 2005. Don’t hold your breath. It took four years to negotiate the original protocol, and that was before most governments fully understood what might be required of them. And the biggest kid on the block, the US – paradoxically the main shaper of the protocol’s structure – is no longer involved.

The Buenos Aires meeting will bring the first, very ten-tative, discussions on those second-phase negotiations. This may sound arcane and marginal, but it was the mandate for the first phase of negotiations that specifically excluded the developing world from having to set emissions reductions targets. Though they had both agreed to the mandate, the US and Australia later used it, with brazen cynicism, to justify their refusal to ratify Kyoto.

The Buenos Aires meeting will also discuss a second issue. As well as agreeing to take the lead in reducing carbon emissions (“mitigation”, in climate jargon), industrialised nations also promised to help developing countries adapt to a changing climate. Pressure is now growing from the developing world for action on that score. But negotiations on this issue are likely to proceed at an even slower pace than those on mitigation. The problem is that it involves money, and overseas aid is increasingly focused on poverty reduction. For example, there is no mention in the Millennium Development Goals of any target for stabilising the climate.

These bleak prospects make it even more important that Blair succeed with his climate initiatives next year when he holds the presidencies of both the G8 and the EU. To his credit, he has been more outspoken on the need for urgent action than any other world leader. But his credibility depends on Britain’s domestic actions, and there, the picture is mixed. Britain is one of the few countries likely to exceed their current Kyoto commitments. However, despite a white paper that makes stronger links between energy and environment policy than is to be found in other countries, policy on renewables and energy efficiency is so small-scale as to be regarded as something of a joke in the rest of Europe. The impression of a growing gap between the PM’s intentions and achievements was reinforced when the government caved in to a campaign by the Confederation of British Industry to raise the level of carbon dioxide that British firms will be allowed to release under the Emissions Trading Directive.

There are few signs yet that Blair’s high aspirations have been translated into a practical political strategy. It seems that Britain is not yet pressing for a climate dimension to be included in the EU’s future financial plans being developed in Brussels. Nor is there any apparent recogni-tion that only Americans will persuade America to do more about the climate. British efforts might be more usefully directed to creating an effective, and potentially lucrative, partnership with China and India than to vain attempts at persuading Vice-President Cheney to get on board.

The risk is that genuinely high ideals again lead to little more than fleeting headlines. The PM can do both the world and himself some real good next year. But unless he pays more attention to details he will miss both opportunities.

About tomburke

Tom Burke is the Chairman of E3G, Third Generation Environmentalism, and an Environmental Policy Adviser (part time) to Rio Tinto plc. He is a Visiting Professor at both Imperial and University Colleges, London. He is a member of the External Review Committee of Shell and the Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board of Unilever and a Trustee of the Black-E Community Arts Project, Liverpool.
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