COPENHAGEN POSTSCRIPT - 2 Selling a low-carbon life just got harder

Posted: 22 December 2009

Author: Jonathon Porritt

Despite the brave faces now being put on the the Copenhagen accord, to see it as anything other than a failure is simply dishonest, says Jonathon Porritt, in this second Copenhagen postscript.

Jonathan Porritt
Jonathan Porritt
Of course it matters that China, India and the United States have, for the first time, formally recognised the need for "deep cuts" in emissions of CO2. Of course it's a good thing that rich-world countries have committed "to a goal of mobilising $100 billion a year by 2020" to help the poor world to cope with climate change. And of course it's critical that the science underpinning these two commitments has been strongly reconfirmed.

Unfortunately, that's about it. Ed Miliband, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, may well be right in claiming that "there is a danger of too much negativity", but we have to be realistic about what did and didn't happen in Copenhagen. The accord itself has no formal standing, and there are no firm figures in it regarding either the scale or urgency of the cuts required, even though many countries are already signed-up to such cuts. There are no details as to how the $100 billion will be raised. Worst of all, there is no commitment to move from this desperately inadequate accord to a legally binding treaty over the next year.

Paradoxically, the greatest cause for hope lies in the depth of that failure. Before Copenhagen, many campaigners had argued that no agreement would be better than a weak agreement. And in effect, that's exactly what has happened.

The shock of this is only just beginning to sink in - as is the realisation that there is still all to play for before the next conference in Mexico in a year's time. By that time Barack Obama should have done his deal with the Senate, China should have got used to its new responsibilities as a global climate player and the EU should have recovered sufficiently from the recession to play a more influential leadership role.

Political fallout

It is intriguing to speculate that it might be David Cameron supporting the EU in that role rather than Gordon Brown. In an election year, the domestic fallout from Copenhagen will be intense. And who knows how individual citizens will react to such a confusing scene?

For Gordon Brown, the failure of Copenhagen will be a deep disappointment. He has worked tirelessly over the past 18 months to help to broker a real deal. British embassies around the world (and particularly in China and India) have put climate diplomacy right at the top of their agenda. Mr Miliband has become the most effective member of Mr Brown's Cabinet, and he personally played a hugely significant role in Copenhagen. Credit where credit is due: on the international stage, no Government has done more to get a legally binding deal on climate change than the UK's.

However, the Prime Minister will not now be able to lay claim to some Copenhagen breakthrough. The UK's unforgiving media will give him little slack in that regard. There is no reassuring "global deal" to provide cover for some of the more controversial and unpopular policies that the Government is now bringing forward - on air passenger duty, for instance, or zero-carbon housing. Peter Mandelson's new-found enthusiasm for a "green industrial revolution" might just slip down that old fixer's list of things that really matter in a pre-election period.

But there's no political upside in any of that for David Cameron. Indeed, I suspect that the fallout will prove to be more problematic for Mr Cameron than for Mr Brown. It will give succour to that weird bunch of "grandees" (David Davis, Peter Lilley, Lord Lawson of Blaby et al) who have become increasingly critical of Mr Cameron's intelligent leadership on climate change.

Climate contrarians

It will provide new ammunition for the out-and-out "contrarians" scattered through the UK media who remain unpersuaded by the overwhelming consensus on the science of climate change, and who do so much to reinforce people's uncertainty and confusion.

Though I have no doubt that Mr Cameron will see off the Lawson brigade, he has a much tougher challenge on his hands with local Conservatives. Many of them do not share his enthusiasm for a low-carbon economy, do not want to sign up to the targets in the Climate Change Act, and continue to treat wind farms as if they were invading aliens from another planet. This is not just "a "generation thing"; some of the most vociferous critics of Mr Cameron's blue-green politics are young thrusters for whom concern for the environment is seen as an ideological aberration.

All of which, I fear, will make it even harder to persuade individuals to play their small but still crucial part in addressing climate change. That feeling of disempowerment ("what difference can we make when China is single-handedly trashing the climate anyway?") will be reinforced. Politicians will have to get even smarter in making the case - for improved energy efficiency in the home (saving you a lot of money), reduced car use (less congestion, healthier lifestyles), less waste and even more recycling (saving even more money), and more holidays at home rather than abroad (less hassle, good for the economy).

The fact that low-carbon lifestyles are both healthier and cheaper gives politicians plenty to work with. But the past two weeks in Copenhagen have not made that task any easier.

Jonathon Porritt is the founder director of Forum for the Future, and former chairman of the UK Sustainable Development Commission. A slightly longer version of this article first appeared in The Times on 21 December, 2009. Reprodiced with permission.