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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.

By Anthony Giddens / December 8, 2009


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.

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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.