Copenhagen: gone and almost forgotten

January 22, 2010 | 00:00

Copenhagen: gone and almost forgotten

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s media coverage of the aftermath of Copenhagen and climate change, disappearing rapidly into the wide blue yonder! The post mortems have finished and the patient is not merely agreed to be dead, but the whole conference is pronounced ‘a failure’. Add in the awkward fact that most of Europe and North America has suffered the coldest winter in decades and the entire ‘global warming’ community is busy explaining that ‘climate’ is not the same thing as ‘weather’. Yet again.

So what went wrong, folks? Pride of place must surely go to the numberless and mindless environmental protesters who merely got in the way. The Danes do have a reputation for hospitality, but giving away 46,000 entry tickets for a hall capable of housing 15,000 was a little too generous. It is difficult not to agree with that veteran environmental reporter Geoffrey Lane who wrote ‘if I ever see another singing, dancing, sloganising polar bear, I shall do my best to melt his ice floe.’ Next time, let us hire a football stadium and take a quick, legally binding vote: ‘And the Winner is…the people in furry costumes!’

Next up, let us blame President Obama, or if not Obama, then the Americans. Always good scapegoat value the Americans, particularly with younger people in clever T-shirts. The fact that the country is a check and balance democracy, in which 43% of the population do not think climate change is happening, seems to have passed most people by. Equally, since prior to Obama, the country spent eight years under an administration which refused even to discuss the matter and doctored statistics to justify itself, it is something of a triumph that Air Force One touched down at all.

But then it is all really the fault of the Chinese, isn’t it? Well, they certainly were handy with the delete button, particularly in relation to numbers, even to the point of astonishing Germany’s Angela Merkel by refusing to allow the richer countries to set their own targets for 2050. Yet there is an explanation for this.

For Merkel, a target for 2050 is an aspiration. For the Chinese, number targets have the status of ‘holy writ’. Even before Communism and certainly after it, the Chinese have measured prosperity in tonnes of more pig iron produced, more pigs eaten and more concrete set. There is nothing aspirational about a numerical target at a target date. These have been a matter of life and death to numerous officials for decades. Numbers really matter.

In any case, China is in an extremely ambiguous position. On the one hand, it has an east coast where per capita energy consumption is rising ever closer to western Europe, while in the west it has millions of people existing on less than a dollar a day. While this enables the rising superpower to run both with the developing and the developed world diplomatically, it also poses a threat to its integrity. China cannot stop its headlong chase for economic development on the US model – super-highways, high-speed trains and rapidly increasing modern cities – without facing highly dangerous unrest, particularly from its ambitious young people. Braking the runaway train, whether this week, next month, next year or next decade is a matter to be handled with great care, not just for China, but also for the rest of the world.

In any case, as one wise official involved remarked, ‘the Chinese are not that good at the multilateral stuff yet. They prefer bilateral.’ So what of their bilateral supporters? Here, it has to be said the contribution has not always been helpful. Lumumba Di-Aping from Sudan characterised one version of the agreement as ‘a suicide pact, an incineration pact, in order to maintain the economic dominance of a few countries.’ Words about a Holocaust were freely bandied about.

Well, with the greatest respect, even the most hardened of climate change activist might like to point out that Sudan’s current dire economic situation might owe just a trifle more to its ever continuing civil war and ethnic tension than the output of a coal-fired power station in Michigan or the Ruhr. And what is this civil war about? It is at least partly about allocation of oil income from its ally in production; China.

Indeed, it may be politically incorrect to say so, but in the middle of numerous accurate descriptions of the impact on sub-Saharan Africa of climate change, it might be noticed that billions of dollars of western aid money has gone into the continent, only to re-emerge in Switzerland, via the back pockets of numerous politicians and generals. Africa will indeed suffer badly from a rise in global temperatures, but to face the challenge, its abiding need is better government.

We can skip all the mud flung at the UN about Copenhagen. If the developing world accuses the rich of hiding in corners making ‘secret’ agreements, then there was nothing to stop them doing the same. That is how multilateral agreements work. You sort out your position with your allies. I sort out mine. We then meet in plenary season and negotiate. Admittedly a plenary session with many of the delegates potentially dressed as penguins may be a bit daunting, but there you go.

Finally, it has to be questioned whether ‘a legally binding’ agreement on something like carbon emissions and climate change was or is actually feasible. What does it actually mean? It is difficult to avoid satire here: ‘Pursuant to the legally binding agreement of 2009 in Copenhagen, I hereby arrest you – the Chinese people – for wilfully and maliciously failing to achieve the carbon emission target agreed by you in 2050. We therefore summon all 1.2 billion of you to appear at the International Court in The Hague on the 23rd January 2051.’

It has been one of the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown’s proudest boasts that the UK remains the only country to have adopted ‘legally binding’ climate change targets in a bill introduced in October 2008. Yet he does not seem to understand why, namely that it is a very silly idea indeed. Under this law,

Chris Cragg is a freelance journalist who has written about energy matters for the past 25 years for numerous magazines and newsletters. He edited the Financial Times Energy Economist for 14 years and spent four years working for BP.
the UK Government will sue the UK Government should the UK Government not achieve its desired target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. Of course by the target date, Ed Milliband, the minister in charge will be 81 years of age, so it is unlikely he will be held personally liable.

Kyoto was not legally binding. Equally, there does not appear to be much case law about this. Given the chronic problems of verification in the matter of carbon emissions, the whole idea of bringing the international lawyers into what is essentially a political intergovernmental aspirational deal could be a gigantic waste of money. A ‘binding agreement’ makes a lot more sense.

So what, if anything, was achieved in Copenhagen? Well, pretty much every country had a say about climate change and there was universal agreement that it was a dangerous threat to global prosperity. Will the EU abandon its emissions targets? No. Will the US free float away from everybody back to the days of George W Bush? No. Will it be joined in aspiration by South Africa and Brazil? Yes. Will China continue to expand its production of solar technology? Yes. Will the rapidly intensifying search for the viable electric car continue? Yes, given the post-2030 oil supply situation, it would be economic stupidity to stop. In short, during a period of bleak recession it wasn’t such a complete waste of time, was it?

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