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The secret motto of the World Climate Conference

Mar 11, 2010 - Dr. Hermann Scheer - Le Monde Diplomatique

The main reason why the public around the world were so shocked by the shameful outcome of the World Climate Conference in Copenhagen was that they were basically unprepared for failure. Everything seemed to be pointing to success: a manifestly pressing problem, upbeat government announcements, urgent appeals from NGOs, worldwide media interest and the participation of numerous heads of state, who hoped to turn the meeting into a "G120" summit.

 But the debacle was really not so surprising. It was not by chance that the World Climate Conference used the same script as the 14 previous events staged since 1995: dramatic "now or never" appeals in the run-up to the conference, a process of small-minded and paralysing haggling producing pitiable results and a decision in favour of a follow-up conference during the event, and in the aftermath, mutual finger-pointing. One exception – albeit only in relative terms – was the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, but even in this case it took a further six climate conferences before it came into force in 2005. Even this agreement, however, was unable to prevent a further increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

 It is depressing to take stock of all the UN's political efforts in the area of climate protection over the last 20 years, that is since the "Our Common Future" Conference in Norway in 1990. Since that time, greenhouse gas emissions have risen by 40 per cent. The painstaking and, in principle, unavoidable process of finding compromise solutions at UN conferences has ended up in compromising international climate policy. Climate diplomacy has turned into a self-referential system which fails to address the central essential question: will the approaches pursued ever lead to a satisfactory outcome? And can UN world conferences do anything at all about the manifest dangers facing the world? One month prior to the debacle in Copenhagen, the World Food Summit in Rome also ended in failure despite the fact that the number of starving people in the world has risen from 0.8 to 1.2 billion in the past ten years.

 An analysis of the reasons for such a chronic failure is long overdue. In the face of decades of fruitless efforts to enforce global governance standards by means of international agreements, the final declaration from the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002 was already highlighting the danger that people were losing confidence in their governments and regarded them as nothing more than "sounding brass".

 In Copenhagen, even this "sounding brass" was missing. If one is seeking to apportion blame, it is time to examine the very concept of the world climate conference. This is based on two highly dubious premises: firstly, that a global problem requires a global solution in the form of a treaty in which all are subject to relatively equivalent commitments; and secondly, that the necessary climate protection measures are to be regarded as an economic burden, so that there is a need to negotiate a fair distribution of the burden. This boils down to the principle of "all or none".

 In the meantime, nobody can now seriously doubt that there is an urgent need to massively expand and, at the same time, speed up climate protection initiatives. In principle there is little dispute about what the most important steps are: speeding up the mobilization of renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. There is also agreement on the need to prevent further soil erosion and forest clearance and instead to create new humus potential and carry out largescale reforestation in order to retrieve CO2 from the atmosphere. It is taking too long, however, to achieve a major consensus.

 All these measures need to be tackled as swiftly as possible. Attempting to achieve an international consensus on necessary action is, however, the slowest route to decision-making. There is an irreconcilable contradiction between speeding up the process and achieving consensus. That is why climate conferences, rather than furthering climate policy, do more to cripple it. Their secret motto is: "Talk globally, procrastinate nationally."

 The more directly and diversely economic and social structures are affected in individual countries, the more difficult it is to achieve a consensus on a binding international treaty enforced through sanctions. In the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, which is an example of a successful global climate policy, a straightforward approach was adopted. The Protocol simply banned the use of hydro-chlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) in refrigeration systems. This applied only to one product component in one branch of industry and did not jeopardise individual companies because all were subject to the same ban. Nevertheless, it still took 10 years for the agreement to become binding.

 To negotiate an international treaty on a global regime which impacts on all economic situations and methods of consumption in vastly different ways is an infinitely more complex and controversial process. This is inevitably the case when it comes to the issue of energy which affects industrialised countries, emerging economies and developing countries, energy exporting and importing countries, and regions with highly varied settlement conditions, geographical conditions, economic structures and technological profiles. Appealing to the sense of responsibility and good will of governments cannot make such varied interests disappear.

 In short: a substantive treaty imposing the same obligations on all can never come to pass because conditions are too unequal. The best that can be hoped for is a consensus on minimum commitments which, in the face of acute climate dangers, will always be set too low. But achieving even this minimum consensus is very difficult, as one world climate conference after another has demonstrated.


The last conference in Copenhagen focused essentially on only one negotiating target which in itself represents a partial surrender in the face of looming catastrophe: limiting greenhouse gas emissions only to the extent that global warming is kept below 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial temperature. Thus a further escalation of climate dangers (from the present atmospheric CO2 level of 385 ppm to 450 ppm) is deemed acceptable.

 It may help to use an analogy to highlight this scandal. In 2000, the UN published its Millennium Development Goals which included the target of halving by 2015 the number of starving people in the world from the then level of 800 million. How would the world have reacted if, instead of this, the UN had announced the goal would be not to allow the number of people starving in the world to grow beyond two billion? Yet it was this kind of cynicism which characterized Copenhagen from the outset, and in the end it proved impossible even to agree on this fatalistic target.                   

However, the fact that such an unavoidably painstaking search for consensus ended at best with a minimum compromise is not the only problem. From a practical perspective, this is still better than nothing because – in theory – it leaves each country free to exceed the minimum agreed commitment. Where the climate question is concerned, however, even this possibility is prevented by the very instruments set up to guarantee the implementation of the target: emissions trading and the associated cap and trade mechanism. This system allows emissions certificates allocated to every country according to their respective minimum commitments to be internationally traded. Those who emit more greenhouse gases than they are permitted to do, for example, can buy emission rights from those who emit less than their entitlement. This "market-based" approach requires global controls to prevent abuses, but these are hardly workable. What the system amounts to is a zero-sum game in which the total of all global climate gas emissions is the same as the minimum commitment. This minimum therefore in practice becomes a maximum. The concept of the global market in emissions certificates is vaunted as being effective and the only option; in fact, it creates an economic incentive not to exceed this minimum. The absurdity of the cap and trade mechanism is that it hinders any attempt to tackle climate dangers in an effective way. Even if a climate protection treaty were to be successfully negotiated, while it may do a little to slow down the escalation of the climate catastrophe over the coming decades, it would not really stem the tide.

 There is a further problem inherent in the market model. Since the prices on the CO2 certificate market fluctuate, there is little certainty in the medium term. This creates an obstacle for many climate protection investments. In order to overcome this drawback, President Sarkozy of France and various economics institutes have proposed that a worldwide flat price be set for emissions certificates. This, however, would do nothing to alter the fact that the total of all climate protection investments does not exceed the minimum commitment. It is clear, therefore, that the international trade in CO2 certificates is not the route to a global climate protection economy but instead is the very reverse of that: a road block.

 Only the neoliberal school of thought could come up with the idea of reducing all climate protection initiatives to a global common economic denominator. Such market-fixated thinking systematically cuts out all further factors – development related and ethical factors, for example. Emissions trading reduces the energy problem to the carbon problem as though the current world energy system would be all right without emissions. All other factors pointing to the need for a rapid change of course towards renewable energies and an increase in energy efficiency are left out of the equation or declared to be of secondary importance.

 This applies, for example, to such goals as reducing dependency on depleting and ever more expensive fossil energy resources in good time, preventing hazardous airborne pollutants, or promoting regional economic activity by grasping the opportunity for autonomous energy supply and hence improving productivity through a medium- and long-term plan to secure future energy needs. All these factors highlight the need to work to promote a paradigm shift towards an energy supply reliant on renewable energies and improved energy efficiency, independent of the outcome of climate protection treaties.

 The economic benefits of such a policy shift are plain to see, although they are not the same or simultaneous for all producers and consumers. This is why it is important to create the political framework for incentives which are tailored to the specific needs of individual countries. Such an approach is irreconcilable, however, with a global market model for CO2 certificates.

 The great changeover to renewable energies and greater energy efficiency which cannot be put off any longer requires a technological revolution brought about on a deliberate and targeted basis. None of the technological revolutions of the new industrial age were the outcome of an international treaty with fixed worldwide parameters; one only has to think of the ever onward marching IT revolution. The ground for every breakthrough was prepared by pioneers drawing others in their wake.

The problem with the concept underlying current world climate policy is that it attempts quite hopelessly to make everyone move forward at the same pace. Thus absurdly a neoliberal model for CO2 emissions certificates is supposed to operate within the framework of a centrally imposed dirigiste minimum limit. This contradiction is based on the false basic assumption that the energy turnaround has to be regarded as an economic burden, whereas in reality it represents a major opportunity for the global economy.

There is therefore no compelling reason to wait for an international climate protection treaty. The attitude of different governments stems above all from their wish as far as possible to shield the producers of climate-damaging energy in their own countries. It also signals a lack of courage to introduce the structural change associated with an energy turnaround which may compromise the interests of the conventional energy companies. In this case, an international treaty is needed as a decision-making crutch.


If world climate conferences are to achieve anything, they will have to look at other topics, of which there is no shortage. Why are there no discussions on dismantling trade barriers and introducing uniform industrial standards for the new technologies? Other subjects might include a new fund for relevant investments in developing countries, funded by a global tax on aircraft fuel, or interest-free loans for the energy investments of developing countries, and last but not least, the question of how to effectively and rapidly expand the recently created International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).

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Updated: 2016/06/30

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