Clem Sunter

All eyes on Copenhagen

2009-07-13 12:41

"Do you wanna dance?" was the theme of a meeting of climate change experts that I facilitated in London not so long ago. The group included one of the chief policy advisers to the British government and two top advisers to the US Senate.

In terms of current policy options and those that might flow out of a new international agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol in 2012, they came up with the following gameboard:

In the period leading up to 2012, they allocated various nations to the bottom two quadrants. Dirty Dancers, which are basically nations that put economic development ahead of any goal to reduce carbon emissions, included most of the developing world. Poverty alleviation heads their agenda; and the last thing they want to do is to increase the cost of electricity with expensive ways of sequestrating the carbon dioxide that comes out of the smokestacks of their power stations.

Their main goal is to give as many citizens as possible access to cheap electricity. Moreover coal-burning power stations trump nuclear on cost (particularly when you include the money needed to get rid of the radioactive waste). Meanwhile, wind, solar and geothermal are too unproven on a large scale. Hydro means displacement of communities.

In the Different Dances quadrant, the experts put most Europeans countries on the grounds that Europe as a whole has made significant progress towards reducing emissions to 1990 levels - which was the central aim of the Kyoto Protocol. America has done the reverse because it never signed the accord. Its carbon emissions per citizen per annum have risen to 25 tons, the highest figure in the world. By comparison, Europe is half that level. However, certain American states such as California qualify for Different Dances in light of the measures they are taking to reduce car emissions. California's current governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has even been dubbed "The Greenerator" for his personal stand on environmental issues!

The two quadrants above the line of the gameboard illustrate the possible outcomes to the negotiations that started in Bali and will end hopefully in Copenhagen at the end of this year. Dances with Wolves is an agreement reached with much fanfare, but little substance. Absent are carbon reduction targets to which individual nations are held accountable by an international body like the United Nations. Immediately after the agreement is signed, the dirty dancers (or wolves) begin to cheat on it with no apparent penalties.

The virtuous outcome is Strictly Ballroom, an agreement to which virtually all nations subscribe and which they honour in word and deed. Inevitably there will be rogue states but the major emitters (America, Europe, Japan, China and India) sign on the dotted line as do countries like Brazil, Russia and South Africa. We in fact have nearly as high per capita emissions as Europe.

The experts at the meeting felt that Strictly Ballroom could only come about with genuine leadership on the issue from America. Barack Obama must be applauded for his totally different approach to George Bush. Moreover, the West who caused the problem in the first place would have to share technological breakthroughs in areas like energy savings, new energy sources and carbon sequestration - on a generous basis - with the developing world. There would also have to be a system of rewards and punishments for nations that did better or worse than the goals set in the agreement.

All in all, Strictly Ballroom is a tall order requiring high levels of goodwill and co-operation in a world that is currently racked by a recession. Although the right noises came out of the recent meeting of leaders in Italy including the proposed target of reducing Developed Countries' emissions by 80% before 2050, the details have yet to be hammered out.

Let us not forget the downside of Dances with Wolves or, worse still, no agreement at all. It is that our little ball in space becomes a microwave oven and eventually uninhabitable. Only the astronauts survive because they can blast off to another planet!

So get on the ballroom floor, put your best foot forward and let the waltz begin. All eyes are on you. That is my message to the international community when they meet in Copenhagen.

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