Why COP15 was an important milestone
Dr Joe Smith is feeling optimistic.
Luckily for humanity the climate change last chance saloon seems to have no fixed closing time. But while most media and policy commentators have savaged the UN and international policymakers for failing to come to a convincing deal I’ve come away from two weeks in the Danish capital holding a glass half full.
Environmentalists whipped up a storm in the months before the conference using phrases such as ‘last chance to save the earth’ and ‘the most important meeting in the history of humanity’. In doing so they presented themselves with a communications headache. The tactic of throwing the rhetorical kitchen sink at COP15 was ill-judged, and has left work to do to regain public and political momentum as they stagger through the rubble of dodgy urban eco-art and the mounds of publicity material that litter the conference centres and squares of downtown Copenhagen.
For those of us that saw this as just one more stage in the four-decade long evolution of environmental politics (note that ‘15’ in the title of the meeting) it felt a little different. This was simply another step on the road in terms of what it means for humanity to take its habitat seriously as a non-renewable resource. But it was a big step: I can see four reasons for taking seriously those posters of cheerful Nordic kiddies that welcomed us to ‘Hopenhagen’.
A modest something
One of The Open University delegation, the leading renewables specialist Godfrey Boyle, attended the first UN environment conference in Stockholm in 1972. That meeting marked the beginning of a formal renegotiation of the place of the natural world, upon which we all depend, within international politics. The meeting was marked by charges from the developing world that the rich world was seeking to ‘pull the ladder up behind them’, and halt economic growth in the South in order that elephants and tigers would still have a home to roam in.
The first reason for hope lies in the fact that just a few years ago it would have been impossible to imagine China, India, Brazil, South Africa and the USA sitting down to even start a conversation about how they would all work to contain and ultimately reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases. And yet these were the parties that tapped out an accord that would give COP15 attendees a modest something to take home. These countries bring very different experiences of the last 100 years to the negotiating table. The full colour advertisement of the American 20th century is one of white picket fences and Cadillacs for all.
Yet for others this was a period of revolutions, ethnic conflict, jarring post-colonial settlements and massive movements of people. Seen in this light the Chinese and Indian achievements of the last 20 years in terms of poverty alleviation and the creation of substantial middle classes are startling. That political leaders from these countries are taking part in discussion of global restrictions on fossil fuel use or the control of sovereign forest resources is even more surprising. However feeble the statements the fact remains that COP15 saw all the key players sit down and take this topic seriously – collectively – for the first time.
Scripted and directed
Not as seriously as some mind. My second source of optimism comes from encounters with the YOUNGOs (the UN acronym for youth NGOs), particularly those from the developing world. The last COP I attended was COP 7 in Marrakesh. There were young folks there from indigenous communities in the north and from the developing world, but there was quite a strong sense that they were being scripted and directed (and certainly funded) by northern NGOs. They were part of a staged performance of concern, complete with costumes that would play well with news media picture editors in the context of an important but dull UN meeting.
It was very different this time. I talked with groups from China and South Asia. More networks than groups: many were meeting for the first time, and were indicator species for a much richer ecology of activism, research, learning and entrepreneurialism than I could have dreamed of. All of the young people had really got their head around the science and policy and had a sense that climate change would permeate their personal and professional lives for years to come. They were ambitious, demanding, smart and carefully optimistic.
Fortunes to be made
The third source of optimism came from a very different generation and category: BINGOs – that is business NGOs. Again the comparison across time is helpful. Most enviro-business events of one or two decades ago were thick with the odour of fresh green paint. Greenwash is still a prominent: Sean Connery is on a continuous loop on BBC World: ‘The Time has Come… for Green Banking’ (…once more with feeling Sean?).
But there is more edge in the business oriented side events these days. Part of this comes from an acceptance by the suits that the protestors out on the streets have a very, very serious point about the state we are in. That intellectual battle has been won amongst a very large portion of the business community. The presence of around 1,000 companies as signatories on the Copenhagen Communiqué creates vital political space around the issue. But that edge also comes from an emerging sense of a game-changing transformation of the business environment. We’re no longer talking about home insulation and lightbulbs. There are very big fortunes to be made (and perhaps as many to be lost) if Obama and friends really do manage to rewire the political economy of energy. There was a sense that corporations are starting to run some very big thought experiments about how they might operate and profit in a fossil fuel constrained world.
The fourth reason this was more Good COP than Bad COP is derived from precisely its chaotic nature. The news reports of 10 hour queues for delegates confirm an almighty foul up on the practical side, and the heavy policing was more club-wielding Viking than furniture-designer Danish. But both the queues and the enormous police presence were some kind of measures of success. Protesters had cycled, trained, walked and, yes, flown, from all over the world to put some heat under the negotiations. Inside the conference centre the UN FCCC had set the table for 15,000 yet 45,000 turned up to dinner. And having organised a UN Conference of the Parties – a formal procedure for painstaking collaborative development of policy amongst all UN member states – the UN suddenly found they had 120 heads of state wanting to roll up and hold a summit alongside (on top of?) the well established policy process (my Open University colleague and former UN FCCC civil servant Stephen Peake expands on the technical nightmare this represents elsewhere).
Too easy and too lazy
Those queues were instructive. One day I passed a fascinating if chilly hour with a guy from a US steel firm; a Nepali engineer who is working to get micro-renewables into rural communities, a Chinese campaigner and a British business consultant. On climate change science and policy we all had much more to agree about than not. We also agreed that 20th century institutions were struggling with this 21st century problem.
Too many have promoted a vanity in the run up to the meeting: the notion that this one event would throw up an agreement – a solution – some kind of resolution. Too easy and too lazy. The truth is that we are engaged in a marathon not a sprint. Nevertheless the events inside and outside COP15 suggest that we do seem to be gathering a working global majority in support of a new way of thinking about economy and ecology.
The Chinese government have had a bad press in the wake of COP15, so I’ll give the last word to a Chinese policymaker who suggested that climate change meant that the west’s concern in the last century with individual rights would have to give way to a commitment to collective rights. Perhaps we will need that simple idea to sit at the centre of the next 40 years of international environmental politics if we are to weather global environmental changes without the massive loss, waste and suffering that is threatened.