Opinion

The Copenhagen climate talks: It's time to consider 'how' to solve climate problems

There are few means of ensuring that countries that sign international agreements actually comply; bilateral pacts could fix that.

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Most of the focus on the United Nations' upcoming Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, has been about the "what" of any potential agreement – the possibility of reaching a "climate change deal." In truth, whatever is or is not agreed on at Copenhagen, the overwhelming emphasis at this point should not only be upon the what, but more upon the how.

Take, to begin with, the developed countries, which are supposed to take the lead in reducing their greenhouse-gas emissions in a radical way. Most have made only limited progress in meeting their Kyoto targets for emissions reductions, modest though these are.

A small cluster of countries, such as Sweden, Denmark, and Germany, have made significant headway. Closer examination, however, shows that most of what they have achieved is not simply the result of active climate-change policy. Sweden and Denmark reacted vigorously to the oil crisis of the late 1970s, and introduced renewable technologies at that point. Germany has made some advances in developing wind power; nevertheless, renewable sources account for only some 7 percent of its energy mix.

Even in the "successful" countries, therefore, a step change in achievements thus far will be demanded.

There is a long list of nations where little or no progress has been made, or where emissions have actually increased. In Europe, one can point to countries such as Italy, Spain, and Greece. Elsewhere, they include Japan, Australia, Canada – and the United States.

There has been much talk recently about the weak negotiating position President Obama will have at Copenhagen, given the difficulty of getting a climate-change bill through Congress. Quite apart from any such legislation, the task of actually reducing American emissions in a systemic way is huge. The American way of life is based upon cheap energy coupled to cheap credit, conjoined to more or less endless suburban expansion. How can these trends be reversed, and in the relatively short term? Where are the policies commensurate with the scale of the problem?

Many suppose that wind, solar, thermal, and other low-carbon technologies can progressively substitute for fossil fuels. They can be part of the solution, to be sure, but we will make little progress in reducing emissions unless we are able to deal with consumption.

Lifestyle change, and on a widespread level – across the industrialized world – is an exigency. Gross domestic product is deeply flawed as a measure of welfare, but no country has yet found a way of replacing it in a way citizens are prepared to accept.

So far as the poorer countries of the world are concerned, the task is equally formidable, or perhaps even more so. Essentially, a new model of development must be pioneered. China, India, Brazil, and other developing nations have the right to aspire to living standards comparable with those of the developed world. Yet beyond a certain point, it will be impossible for them simply to tread the same path the rich countries have followed; the destructive consequences in terms of climate change will be far too large.

A great deal of creative thinking is needed, and most of it will have to be social and political.

The world must consider the possibility that some traditional ways of life and social connections should not be sacrificed on the altar of modernity but can help show an alternative way to prosperity. For instance, could developing countries go back to the future by preserving local communities and attachments, perhaps integrating them with high-tech means of communication and thereby avoiding further urban sprawl?

And then there is the sphere of international relations, where just as much innovation will be needed. At present, there are few means of ensuring that countries that sign up to international agreements actually comply.

What use is it for governments to agree to set themselves targets if there is no way that they can be held to them? Regular monitoring of progress by an international body or bodies will help, but naming and shaming is likely to have only a marginal impact. More far-reaching sanctions have to be found, difficult though that task is in the face of the fact that nations jealously guard their sovereignty.

Finally, even on the level of sheer negotiation, Copenhagen-style agreements can only take us so far. Bilateral pacts will be extremely important, especially between China and the US, the world's two biggest polluters.

For instance, the US could agree to relax certain patent rights for the transfer of low-carbon technologies into China in exchange for trade concessions . Regional agreements and plans will also be necessary in all parts of the world, not just for mitigation but also for adapting to large-scale changes in weather patterns.

Wherever we look there is an immense amount of work to be done and novel thinking is required.

Anthony Giddens is a member of the British House of Lords and the former director of the London School of Economics. His most recent book is "The Politics of Climate Change." The UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen is Dec. 7 to Dec. 18.

© 2009 Global Viewpoint Network / Tribune Media Services. Hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor

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