Sir David King, The Scientist's Blog
“Copenhagen Outcome - Part 1”
28 Jan 10 | 511 comments
Now that the dust from December’s Copenhagen climate meeting has settled, the mood appears to be one of disappointment, and even dismay. I don’t think this is fair. There were certainly aspects of the outcome that were disappointing, though not entirely unexpected. But there were also some important positive messages.
To understand both the positive and negative outcomes from Copenhagen, it’s useful to recall what the meeting was supposed to achieve. The United Nations Kyoto Protocol on climate change, which was negotiated in 1997, covered emissions only until 2012. The meeting in Copenhagen was designed to create a new protocol that could take over from Kyoto, and go much farther.
Since 1997 we have made great progress both in scientific understanding and in corporate and political will. Kyoto didn’t go nearly far enough. If the Protocol had been fully enacted by all Annex 1 countries (which it was not), the result would still have reduced CO2 emissions by a mere 5% by 2012, which would have had very little effect on the changing climate.
For one thing, the scientific community has become much clearer about the action required, and we now know that we need to defossilise our economies over next 40 years. In 1997 that would have sounded like scaremongering; now it has become such a basic reality that both the European Union and President Obama’s US Administration have now committed to achieving that target.
Another important development has come in the business community, where many leaders now understand that climate change represents not just a challenge, but also an enormous opportunity to get ahead of the competition.
In 2007 a body, the Copenhagen Climate Council, was set up at arms length from the Danish Government to raise the profile of the Copenhagen climate meeting with the business community. I was a member of this body, which brought together leading members of the international business community in Copenhagen in spring 2009. That meeting at least was very successful. CEOs of most major companies attended and expressed notably little scepticism about climate change. Instead, there was a clear consensus about the importance of long-term clarity on the pricing of CO2. Business people seeking to make investments in the future of low-carbon growth naturally want to know how secure those investments will be.
Developments on the international political scene since 1997 have been more mixed. On the one hand we have developed a much clearer political understanding of the size of the challenge this represents to our behaviour and lifestyles. Politicians in 1997 were rather naïve about the implications of managing climate change, whereas the reality has now sunk in.
On the other, America is still experiencing the fall-out from 8 years of an administration that did all it could to thwart action on climate change. (George Bush’s first declaration on the international front in January 2001, was that Kyoto was “dead”.) Although President Obama has nailed his colours firmly to the climate mast, those lost years and powerful Washington lobbyists are making his task very hard, and neither the Congress nor the Senate is fully behind his aspirations.
Moreover, the industrialized countries are now being caught up in economic terms by a new set of powerhouses, especially China, India and Brazil. China has taken over from the US as the world’s biggest emitter and the Kyoto Protocol, which applied only to the so-called Annex 1 group of rich countries, now looks almost quaint.
This, then, was the complex backdrop to December’s Copenhagen meeting. Expectations were sky high. The media had worked itself up into a fever pitch. The Danish cabinet was eager to see the name “Copenhagen” attached to the next protocol. Gordon Brown was just as keen to see a protocol emerge in December. Partly, I think, this was because—faced with a spring election—he saw this as his last chance to make a difference. He successfully created a new international political grouping, the G20, and oversaw its attack on the financial crisis. But he also wanted to use his international clout to encourage an agreement. Brown was the first Head of Government to say he would attend the Copenhagen meeting, and it is at least in part because of his efforts that so many others followed suit.
However, the very levels of enthusiasm generated by the meeting helped set the dial to overload. There were about 3000 official delegates trying to reach agreement on a new Protocol, and a staggering 37,000 registered observers. The Congress Centre could only hold 15,000 and even those lucky “few” had to queue for hours in Denmark’s bitter winter temperatures. The air was one of confusion and frustration and some at least of that must have seeped into the negotiations—which were frequently ponderous and unedifying.
Continued in Part 2