After Copenhagen: A new leadership challenge

The following is a statement by Mikhail Gorbachev, Founding President of Green Cross International and head of the the Climate Change Task Force, and Alexander Likhotal, President of Green Cross International, and member of the Climate Change Task Force.

After a tumultuous fortnight that saw everything from deal-breaking pledges to derailing walkouts, from outright squabbling between the world’s most powerful nations inside to clashes in the streets outside the conference walls, the Climate Change Summit is over and assessments are pouring in from all sides. The United States’ participation is being scrutinized most closely of all, closely followed its fellow top-two polluter, China.

The Summit can be described as a last minute diplomatic success, but at the price of a failure of vision. On the positive side, we have Fast Start finance for the next two to three years, a vague blueprint for a Climate Fund for future mitigation action, the promise of greater transparency from major emerging economies, and a reference to the limit of two degrees Celsius average global temperature rise, with a review conference by 2016 to decide on a stricter goal in the future. On the negative side, the Copenhagen Accord – tailored to placate emotional concerns and serve short-term political ambitions – ultimately just does not fly, falling dramatically short on how or when most goals will be achieved. We remain firmly on track for a 3-4oC global temperature rise: in other words, climate catastrophe.
A convergence of closely entwined global economic, energy and environmental crises is dictating the complete recalibration of the world’s response to climate change to the emergency level. It calls for genuine statesmanship, not the lowest common denominator compromise and business-as-usual, and this was sorely lacking in Copenhagen. There is not much time left to close the gap between “politics as usual” and the transformational, collective leadership required to turn the seemingly impossible changes needed to prevent climate catastrophe into reality.
What has the Summit failed to achieve?
First, Copenhagen failed to issue firm commitments commensurate with the challenge – according to the latest scientific analysis and political consensus – of restricting average global temperature increase to below 2oC. The declaration that the world “ought to” limit warming to 2oC does not hold water as it is not matched with a concrete cap on developed countries 2020 emission reductions. This is a slap in the face for developing countries, which have been demanding up to 40% reductions. The US emission reduction pledge of 17% below 2005 levels by 2020 translates to just 3-4% below 1990 levels – that is nearly ten times less than the EU has committed to. It is not an offer that puts the US in a position to expect very much from the major developing economies, and is bitterly disappointing for African and other poor nations already suffering from the impacts of climate change. It is not a leadership position.
Second, the absence of even a goal to reach a legally binding agreement hardly provides the basis for a robust institutional framework for the future climate change system. Besides, it is absolutely critical that the US equips itself with the necessary corresponding national legislation in the first half of 2010, not only to enable it to implement its pledges, but also to avoid the climate change debate becoming completely engulfed by the mid-term elections. The recent EPA Endangerment ruling gives the US some scope for immediate action to curb emissions, but it is no substitute for a strong national energy and climate change law. Without this, other major stakeholders – including China, India and even the EU – might retract on their commitments.
Third, the financial mechanisms and kick-start packages are not sufficient. A vague call for a “goal” of $100 billion a year by 2020 to help poor nations cope with climate change, along with $30 billion for the least developed countries from 2010-2012, is not nearly enough to actually permit the poorest nations to either cope with the consequences they already face, or advance low-carbon development programmes. The industrialized world has a climate debt to the developing nations that must be honoured, not used as a bargaining chip. To be credible, the Fast Start Fund must be followed by at least $200 billion of genuinely additional financing per year in the future.
Fourth, the political bickering completely marginalized specific commitments to early action, and even the agreement on protecting tropical forests fell short of what was hoped for. But, while the Copenhagen debates were weak in the practical action department, luckily the solutions themselves are far from lacking. Wind power alone has the potential to satisfy a large part of global electricity demand. Since the 1990s, the cost of producing wind energy has fallen by 80%: it is now a bona fide profit and job-generating industry, and set to expand 20-fold in the US alone by 2020.
The US has many such “low hanging fruits” to pluck, and huge financial gains to reap, by enhancing its energy efficiency – which is currently many times lower than either Japan or most of Europe – and boosting its long-neglected renewable energy industries. Private investors are already taking note. By some estimates, $1 trillion has been invested in low carbon energy sources and buildings since 2007. But, every month that America wavers on its climate and energy legislation, it is losing green investment and jobs to its competitors.
Change will happen regardless of what was done – or rather not done – in Copenhagen, or will be decided in Washington. However, the transition to a low-carbon, green economy that must take place for economic and geological reasons – even without putting climate change into the equation – will be much more painful, dramatic and expensive if governments fail to lead the transformation. Global oil supplies will peak within the next decade. If we are not prepared for this transition the global financial crisis of 2008-2009 will look like a picnic. It is time to envisage a US economy freed from the $700 billion a year oil bill that it currently pays out to foreign suppliers. It is also worth remembering that while, due to our years of inaction, avoiding a climate catastrophe may now cost up to 4% of global economic output, this is still less than the 5% it cost to bail out the banks.
The world, and especially the American people, have already missed out on twenty years of sorely needed US action on climate change. We cannot turn back the clock. US emissions have risen by 20% since 1997, and the emerging economies of China and India have completely changed the playing field. Meanwhile, the crisis has been mounting and the window of opportunity for avoiding irreversible disaster is narrow. But it is still there. The task is harder now, more complex, and far more urgent, but with all nations working together the opportunity to forge a sustainable future is within reach.
Multinational cooperation and the engagement of international organizations are essential preconditions for effective action. Fortunately, the US has reclaimed its place in global multilateralism. In this regard, President Obama’s words at the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance ceremony, that “America’s commitment to global security will never waver”, should be recognized as a very important political commitment.
The US President issued a leadership challenge to his global counterparts prior to and at Copenhagen, and, to a degree, it worked. Brokering Copenhagen Accord he has thrown down the gauntlet and delivered a similar challenge to the American people and their elected representatives on Capitol Hill. Much depends on how they respond. As the President declared in Copenhagen, “These international discussions have essentially taken place now for almost two decades and we have very little to show for it other than an increase, an acceleration of the climate change phenomenon. The time for talk is over.” By setting an example, the US has an historic opportunity to lead, uniting the world to fight climate change. However, leadership has always meant more than just successful politics – it is about leading the change and not just recognising the challenge.

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