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Climate change

More urgent, more difficult

by Hans Dembowski
Copenhagen made it absolutely clear: climate protection is a cross-cutting issue touching upon every area of policy. That is why presidents, prime ministers and chancellors attended the summit. In the end, however, even they failed to draw a line under 17 years of missed opportunities for international climate control. [ By Hans Dembowski ]

No, the failure of the Copenhagen Summit does not mean that total climate disaster is now inevitable. But it has become more likely. The governments of the countries emitting the most greenhouse gases declared their intention of limiting global warming to 2°C. But without commitments indicating who is going to do what by when, that announcement is not worth much.

Zero progress on climate protection is worse than inertia in trade policy. Delegates have come home empty-handed from WTO summits too. But liberalisation will wait if need be; and the world goes on as it is. Climate change, however, will not wait. Its effects are already felt in devastating droughts, floods, storms and landslides. It seems ironic that snowstorms and freezing temperatures swept across large parts of Europe and North America at precisely the moment the Copenhagen conference flopped.

The more urgent climate protection becomes, the more difficult the environment for the necessary political decisions. Climate change interacts with other important and complex fields of policymaking. Where environmental change makes customary farming practices useless, it becomes more difficult to ensure adequate food supply. Food shortages, in turn, trigger migration and increase the likelihood of violent conflict. Meanwhile, biological diversity is eroding, so ecosystems are becoming even more vulnerable.

Governments that face a complex challenge normally set up a special ministry to address it, and assigning responsibility to specialists makes sense if they get a grip on the problem. But that has not happened in regard to climate protection. At the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, the international community was well aware of the dangers relating to global warming. Since then, lots of negotiating has been done, but emissions have continued to soar.

Because far too little was achieved by line ministers, Copenhagen became a matter for the bosses. In the end, however, it evidently proved too much even for the heads of states and governments to iron out the shortcomings of 17 years of international climate policy.

It was a disaster that the rich nations took such a lax attitude towards the responsibilities they accepted under the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. This stance has cost them a lot of credibility. To win back at least part of it, the wealthy nations must now implement every sensible measure they promised in Copenhagen as soon as possible. That applies particularly to the United States; but the EU would also do well to deliver voluntarily on everything it has offered.

Yes, there is reason to worry that emission-rich industries may relocate to emerging economies as a result. Climate tariffs in international trade would be a sensible counter-measure. And while such levies would probably get WTO backing, they are unlikely to ever be imposed. Trade is the issue to which China, the worst naysayer in Copenhagen, is sensitive in particular. Beijing has moved on climate issues ahead of Copenhagen, though not noticeably during the summit. China’s leaders know that exports offer no protection for economic powerhouses like Shanghai or the Pearl River Delta from the dire consequences of climate change.

It was pleasing to see the representatives of the smaller and poorer developing countries in Copenhagen refuse to rubber-stamp the deal that the leaders of newly-industrialising nations negotiated with US President Barack Obama. The rising giants’ interests actually do differ from those of the least developed countries when it comes to climate change. It was bizarre from the outset that the Group of 77 – the most important coalition of developing nations – was represented in Copenhagen by Sudan, an oil dictatorship that totally depends on China’s goodwill.

The Copenhagen summit has failed. But all is not lost. Fast action can still prevent the worst. Those involved in the conference understand what needs to be done. They have to act accordingly, though they now lack the backing of binding global agreements.