Forum For the Future founder director Sara Parkin asks: What will be the Copenhagen outcome?
The wind-up to this month’s climate change conference in Copenhagen is quite something, as 192 countries gather to agree on individual and collective targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions
But will it be the climax of months − years − of talks and negotiations, of sifting ever more startling evidence from climate scientists, or is it, as chairman of the Environment Agency Chris Smith has said, the crucial start to something even more important?
I hope it is not the climax. A clear-cut agreement on what is, in effect, a common energy policy, the global equivalent of the UK’s admirable Climate Change Act, is a tall order.
Failure of the US to join in last time round scuppered the whole thing, and it took the lower economic activity of this recession to see the first significant drop in emissions (3% globally, nearly 6% in the US) since 1981. No-one wants an action replay of that. Copenhagen will focus minds, but it is what it sets in train that will matter most.
In fact there are only two bits of action that count in the rather chaotic process: discussions about equity and those between China and the USA.
Poorer countries, manifest in a negotiating group as the G77, argue rightly that the countries historically and currently most responsible for the bulk of the emissions should shoulder most of the cuts and transfer cash and technologies so poor countries can develop too, but in a low carbon way.
This is not a new argument, but the difference since the Kyoto round is the financial crisis. Countries like Brazil, India and China are wielding their new power, born of the fact that the west clearly did not know best when it came to running the global economy.
The hot money is on there being some sort of deal. China will bargain hard, and the flurry around a possible tax on global financial transactions suggests the equity argument is won and the West is trying to raise the wind to pay for it. Certainly the US will want to bring a cherry to top off the Copenhagen agreement, if only to prove it is still a power, if no longer the only one, in the world.
Meanwhile, back in UK, we are already kitted out with legally binding targets which, whatever happens in Copenhagen, will have to be met. The implications of a 20% reduction in emissions by 2020 and the sort of upfront investment needed to hit a 80% target in 2050 are nevertheless poorly understood.
Unimpressed by progress so far, carbon budget setting Committee on Climate Change has called for a step change in how we generate power, heat buildings and get about.
Civil engineers wanting to future proof their skills and their companies are advised to think re-use and maintenance rather than new, as shortage of investment may mean greater emphasis on more humble technologies implemented on a large scale − at home and abroad. Upgrading the grid thus remains a priority, as is making infrastructure resilient. And plant trees. Trees will be big in Copenhagen. They mop up CO2.
- Sara Parkin is Forum For the Future’s founder director