Seven ways to reignite climate action after dismal Doha

10 December 2012

The latest round of UN climate change negotiations – the COP18 conference in Doha – made only modest progress. Set against the elephantine size of the global climate problem, this achievement looks like a mouse.

Climate protestors in Doha, Qatar.

Climate change negotiations are like wrestling in thick mud. Those seeking a deal commensurate with the problem get knocked down over and over again. And at the start of each year’s conference, hope is re-kindled only to be dashed after two weeks of talks.

This time, hope was vested in the wild possibility that host Qatar might pledge finance or emissions cuts. Such an initiative could break the mould and bring in other Gulf nations remarkable for their wealth and exceptionally high per capita carbon emissions. But it didn’t happen. Some even hoped that a newly re-elected Obama administration might put a new deck of cards on the table. But the US is still not ready to change the game.

International policy making is an arena in which postponing hard decisions has become an art form. The Euro crisis is an exemplar, in which over and over again, the key players have somehow managed to hold off total crisis and collapse, but have only kicked the can of decisive action down the road for another day. But while this is a disastrous tactic for climate change, as every year of inaction makes the task ahead ever harder.

Something – in fact many things – will have to change if governments are to meet their 2015 deadline of forging a global deal that balances people’s rights and responsibilities across the planet and keeps us all within a tolerable climate system. How can we up the ambition in the next couple of years?

I think we need to do at least seven things:

  1. Get the engine of market economics to work for sustainability, rather than against it. There’s a powerful set of economic, financial and fiscal tools which could drive us in a safer, more secure direction. Putting a price on carbon is the most important of these — good for revenue, as well as shifting investment away from fossil fuels.
  2. Make time matter. We must reward people in politics, business and daily life for taking the longer view.
  3. Understand, identify and contest the vested interests that block or delay shifts to a greener economy. There are strong interests we must dislodge or transform.
  4. Re-balance the “rights” culture with recognition of responsibilities towards each other and to our collective home. The global climate change negotiation process is conducted in a culture of scoring points off each other rather than building a common future vision. I hope that having much better gender balance in the mix of negotiators, as proposed and agreed, should help.
  5. Make metrics matter. If we want to move in a more sustainable direction, we have to measure the things we must manage better.
  6. Have a serious global and local conversation. In both rich and poor countries, many people understand that things aren’t right with the climate.
  7. Spur governments to be leaders and champions. Many have abdicated responsibility, but we must encourage them to retake this ground, by finding ways to create competition amongst our political class in favour of longer term, equity based sustainability.

Environmental campaigners have rightly been accused of crying wolf. Before COP15 in Copenhagen, there was talk of “ten days to save the planet”, and this being “our last chance to stop climate change”. While such deadlines can be unhelpful, as the bluff is always called, we really do need people to recognise that delayed action on climate change will make life tougher.

And there are some hard truths we need to communicate: there is far too much carbon around for us to burn, as shown by the Carbon Tracker Initiative. So we’re on track for a 3-4 degree C rise in average temperatures before the end of the century. The consequences are not pretty. And despite changing our light bulbs and recycling rubbish, we’re not doing nearly enough to get fossil fuels out of our economic systems.

Maybe seven strands of work are too many. If there was just one thing we have to push, I vote for a carbon price. Which would you choose? Because the time to choose a new direction is upon us.

COP18 has come and gone. Next year, the talks will be in Warsaw, Poland – a host nation that has so far stalled European ambition on climate action. Expectations will therefore be low. But we have just a two year space in which to make serious proposals for getting our mouse-like response better able to roar at the elephant.

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