Photo: Corbis/Getty Chinese premier Wen Jiabao speaks at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in 2009

Climate Deal: The right way?

By Adam Robert Green | Published:  15 November, 2011

As UN climate talks enter a 17th round in Durban, sceptics ask whether a global deal is the best approach

“Democracy means government by discussion,” British politician Clement Attlee once said. “But it is only effective if you can stop people talking.” Climate change practitioners have heard their share of speeches over the last two decades, but seen little by way of a global deal. Heading to Durban this November, many expected to be finalising an emissions agreement signed at Copenhagen in 2009. They hoped in vain. The much-hyped jamboree in the Danish capital was heavy on aspiration and street theatre but bereft of concrete commitments.

“Copenhagen was a huge opportunity missed,” says Mark Lynas, who advises the President of the Maldives on international climate change negotiations. “The process was badly handled by the Danish presidency and negotiations were characterised by bitterness and rancour between the G77 bloc and the developed countries. That divide has been a central feature blocking negotiations for the last fifteen years.”

While some dusted themselves off and returned for the friendlier round in Cancun and now head for Durban, there is scepticism among others about the whole concept of global climate treaty-making. “We have had twenty years of failure,” says Michael Shellenberger at the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental think tank, who attended the Rio Summit in 1992 as a student. “The prevailing model – of industrialised countries reducing emissions, followed by poor countries – is anachronistic. It has created elaborate, phoney offset schemes without doing the most important thing of all: to make clean energy cheaper,” he claims.

Mr Shellenberger calls for the international community to concentrate on structuring the incentives for innovation rather than engaging in what he describes as endless, fruitless arguments over regulation. Governments, he says, could change how they subsidise clean energy for a start. “Right now, we fund it like crop support. We agree to pay more for clean energy and subsidise it. That incentivises the production of technologies we already have.”

The driver of new technologies in the US, such as microchips and radio, was not subsidies or tax breaks, but a “demanding customer, usually the military”. Energy authorities could play that role, putting out contracts to buy new technologies. Until clean energy is cost-competitive, there will be no progress, he argues.

Scott Barrett, professor of natural resource economics at Columbia University, believes a global deal can be signed, but contends that the Kyoto model should be discarded. “The problem is that we are seeking to achieve too many things at once,” he says. Mr Barrett wants to revisit the approach of the Montreal Protocol of 1987, a “beautiful treaty” which had a beneficial effect on addressing ozone-destroying chemicals, with four times more impact on greenhouse emissions than Kyoto. “While the world is focusing all this effort on coming up with a climate agreement under the framework convention, in Montreal we succeeded almost without trying.”

The trick, he argues, is to start off with a deal to limit just one of the six greenhouse gases, a far easier task as Montreal shows. “What I’m proposing is to take a big problem and break it into smaller pieces. Each piece will have features you can exploit to bring about greater collective action. You are also separating them so if there are problems in one area, it does not bring down the whole thing.” Mr Barrett believes smaller binding agreements on particular greenhouse gases, sectors and technologies will create a sense of momentum, and need not rule out broader agreements later. “Part of the challenge is getting people who are so wedded to an old idea to give up on it.”

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