Copenhagen – what’s it worth?

Simon Zadek argued on Wednesday that unilateral action is now our only hope to address climate change. Here, chinadialogue authors Martin Bunzl, Malini Mehra, Wang Tao and Gao Feng respond.

The value of Copenhagen

Simon Zadek (see “Revising plan A”) is ready to declare Copenhagen dead, along with any kind of agreement that depends on long-term commitments by sovereign states. He thinks the core of the problem is a function of what he calls “short-term economics and the associated politics”. Instead, Zadek argues for unilateral action based on national self-interest with international collaboration wherever possible. I have three comments on this argument:

First, not every long-term agreement between sovereign states has been a failure. The Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer is a prime example of success.

Second, if short-term interests are the problem, it is not clear why unilateral action should fare any better than collective action. The short-term interests that are antagonistic with what needs to be done in the long run bite just as hard at the national level as they do at the global level – and the payoff for unilateral action is, of course, much lower.

Third, the choice is not between successful binding agreements by nation states and unilateralism. What the Copenhagen process offers – and, after all, it does not need to be concluded this year to be a success – is a context in which parties can create incentives to encourage commitments being taken seriously in the context of a global economic system in which many sticks and carrots exist.

The value of Copenhagen is threefold: it creates a framework that can be adjusted if and when our projections of what needs to be done prove to have been too optimistic; it creates a standard that sets expectation for all parties, unlike Kyoto; finally, it offers a context in which unilateral action by nation states diminishes the risks of others worrying that they will lose out economically if they act alone.

Martin Bunzl directs the Initiative on Climate change and Social Policy at Rutgers University

Reasons for optimism

It is too early to write an obituary for Copenhagen. While many of us around the world are agitating for a “fair, ambitious and binding” (FAB) agreement, we know that Copenhagen is an important milestone – not an end-point.

This is not the moment to lose heart. We may not get a set of legally binding targets for industrialised countries from Copenhagen, but we have already reached a level of political consensus globally that had been thought improbable just a year ago. First, we have strong agreement at the head-of-state level that ambitious targets are needed from industrialised countries, and that these must be accompanied by efforts to deviate from the business-as-usual emissions trajectory by the major developing economies. There is agreement that a fair finance package is needed to ensure that the adaptation needs of the poorest countries are met. There is agreement that technology partnerships will be needed going beyond the sterile “technology transfer” discussion of yore and tapping into the new technology markets in countries such as China and India. These are just some of the headline areas of consensus at the head-of-state level. No doubt there are differences – and the devil is in the detail – but only a hardened cynic would suggest that there has been no movement in the last few months when we have seen a ratcheting up of commitments by many nations: Japan, Norway, Indonesia, China and India, to mention just a few.

Second, there are hugely encouraging developments at the sub-national level. For example, even though the United States government has not as yet adopted emissions-reductions targets, more than 200 cities across the country have adopted 2020 targets – and there is a strong emerging movement within states, business and the investor community for tough action. Copenhagen will be a battleground for many competing interests, but the lazily inaccurate “north-south” media hype hides the reality: that we are seeing more convergence than conflict on climate change. Now is the time to hold our nerve and remain optimistic, not resort to self-defeating pessimism.

Malini Mehra is founder and chief executive of the Centre for Social Markets

A forgetful fantasy

Simon Zadek suggests that we pin our climate-change hopes on the unilateral or bilateral actions of major nations or nation groups – and give up our efforts to reach a global, long-term and binding treaty. This is very dangerous.

The significant unilateral or domestic actions currently undertaken by the European Union, China and other countries are laudable and encouraging, but they are also unstable and unsustainable: they could be interrupted, or led in the opposite direction, by changes in the national interest or other factors. It is failed, neoliberal market dogmatism to expect that agreements reached by major countries or groups based on their own self-interests, without strong international monitoring and regulation, could benefit a global common good. Over the past 12 months, the world has learned the kind of disastrous consequences that can be wrought by smart bankers and careless politicians without strong regulation or supervision in the private sector. To expect to manage a global public good in the same way is a forgetful fantasy.

Without a predictable, sustainable and adequate climate fund mechanism, the developing countries will not ratify the climate-change deal. But relying on unilateral actions to draw developing countries on board would be even more time-consuming and unstable. Moreover, “Might is Right” is a rule of competition in nature, but it is not fair and ethical in our society. The citizens of small island states should not be regarded as “unfit” and left to bear the worst consequences of climate change, just because their ancestors decided to inhabit that land. However, bilateral agreements between major players are likely to sacrifice the interests of small island states, the least developing countries, the global ecosystem – and our future generations.

Fear of mutual-assured destruction may have applied to nuclear weapons build-up, but not climate change. Cumulated nuclear weapons at the level of mutual-assured destruction is a static equilibrium: one could add nuclear weapons nearly without limit and still stay safe, as long as nobody sets them off. But a world sliding towards runaway climate change is dynamic; there is no non-binding bilateral action that could reach a stable equilibrium in this situation. The possibility of free-riding by other nations or groups will always be an encouragement to nations to violate existing agreements, eventually leading us to the worst equilibrium of all: the race to the bottom of no mitigation.

Of course a global deal always risks non-compliance, but stringent penalties and proper incentives to protect global welfare could minimise the risk. The Montreal Protocol, Basel Convention and the Convention of Biological Diversity are all successful examples of global environmental deals. Although the climate deal is more challenging, it is not infeasible.

Simon Zadek’s own suggestion to establish global carbon taxes would require an global binding agreement to be reached, not only in climate change but also world trade regimes. It is impossible to rely on unilateral actions by the United States and Europe against China and other countries, otherwise a global trade war would simply lead the world towards a “lost-lost” situation – for both the environment and the economy.

Efforts to address climate change need a clear, transparent, binding and global “plan A”.

Wang Tao is senior program officer at WWF China

Hopes for a political deal

From technical perspective, reaching a legally binding treaty on the commitments of countries at Copenhagen will prove impossible, given the time left for such complex global negotiations on climate change.

From a political perspective, conflicting national interests have made the process painfully slow. But that is the way the world is. My expectation for Copenhagen, based on the precedent of the Bonn Agreement in 2001, is that countries will reach a deal to provide a solid political framework for the negotiations in 2010. (In December 2000, the sixth conference of the parties [COP6] in The Hague did not reach an agreement on the set of rules to implement the Kyoto Protocol. In June 2001, COP6 was resumed as COP-6bis, where a political deal was made on crunch issues. This was known as the Bonn Agreement and allowed the parties to successfully finalise the set of rules for implementing Kyoto, which made the protocol ratifiable.) If this goal is achieved, I would still hail Copenhagen as a success.

Gao Feng is director of the legal department at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change secretariat.
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