What’s happening on the climate change and energy front? Part 1

There is a growing acceptance of the climate threat, but international consensus over the right policy responses remains elusive

James Meadowcroft100x100With 2013 now underway it is worth pausing to take stock of recent developments on the climate change and energy fronts.  The last few years have probably represented the most difficult conjuncture to confront environmentalists for a generation – with governments almost entirely preoccupied with managing economic woes.

So what were the key trends from a review of 2012? Here are the first two of my picks for some of the most interesting highlights.

Climate change begins to come home to roost. This was a year of strange weather all round, culminating with Hurricane Sandy hitting New York.  For most ordinary people it is obvious that something strange is happening with the weather.  Of course, climate change ‘sceptics’ remain active and are likely to cause mischief for many years to come.  But to a large extent the public discussion has passed them by.

The themes of those seeking to delay action have also shifted: from ‘what climate change?’ and ‘how can you prove we are responsible?’ to ‘it is too expensive to tackle’ and ‘why should we do anything when others are a bigger part of the problem than we are?’  When, in the wake of Sandy, The New York Times mused on how much disruption major financial institutions would be willing to tolerate before they considered relocating from Wall Street, and the Mayor of New York (a Republican) endorsed President Obama’s re-election bid on the grounds that he was the candidate most likely to do something about climate change, then some kind of watershed has been passed.

On the other hand, the data on greenhouse gas emissions is trending towards the high end of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s earlier scenarios.  Emissions have rebounded strongly from the dip that followed the 2008 financial crisis, driven up particularly by rising fossil fuel consumption in emerging economies and a resurgence of coal use.  This comes at a time when scientific assessments are suggesting that impacts of warming are happening faster than predicted only a few years ago. Most notable is loss of ice cover in the Arctic.

So, we have a classic ‘policy scissors’: drivers getting worse even as the policy response falters.

Stalemate persists in the international climate negotiations. The results of the December 2012 Conference of the Parties in Doha were mixed.  There was some incremental progress – for example, agreement by the EU and a few other developed states to establish a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol (2013-20). In other words, the one binding international emissions reduction agreement will carry forward.  But it covers only a fraction of global emissions and, what is more, Canada, Russia, New Zealand and Japan, amongst the original signatories, are now out.

Another modest step forward was agreement to establish a mechanism to cover ‘loss and damage’ caused by climate change.

Yet the underlying stalemate evident in Copenhagen in 2010 continues. Indeed, even as the talks have declined in political salience, the UNFCC negotiations have become increasingly arcane, with multiple negotiating streams and ever more elaborate mechanisms being devised for particular purposes, as diplomats struggle to keep something alive.

One of myths around the climate talks is that these annual gatherings are where important decisions are made, and that action on climate change mitigation is stalled because of the difficulty in securing international agreement.  After all, it is said, this is a thoroughly wicked problem with no easy solution; countries have diverging interests; there are so many parties at the negotiating table; and so on. Overall, stalled talks are preventing significant climate mitigation from happening.

In fact, almost the opposite is true: the talks are stalled because the major players are not interested in taking serious action to mitigate climate change.  Here the US stands out in particular, but China too deserves mention.

None of the major actors are deploying real power resources to marshal allies and get something done. When leading states identify problems affecting their vital national interests they are seldom bashful about pulling out the stops to secure action.   They do not hesitate to apply diplomatic pressure, mobilise foreign aid budgets, and wield trade threats to get their way.

But these actions are not happening around climate change.

It is worth noting that over the past decade each piece of draft climate change legislation introduced into the US Congress included ‘border tax adjustments’ – i.e. punitive tariffs against competitors deemed to be making insufficient efforts to tackle climate change.  Of course, none of those bills ever got close to passing into law. But when the US does decide to bring in national carbon pricing this will most likely be accompanied by measures to force others to share the burden.

Europe largely carried the ball on climate action during the past decade. But it will be increasingly difficult for Europe to go on alone – partly because of the slow motion train crash of the euro project (and UK restiveness), and partly because European businesses will increasingly ask how much can be expected of them if other regions do not pull their weight. Higher energy costs are an increasing worry for EU competiveness.

Currently, the real action on climate mitigation is taking place at the national and sub-national level. Even in the US a lot is happening on the ground, including the introduction of emission trading in California, new national fuel efficiency standards for passenger vehicles, and a switch from coal to gas for power generation.  All of this will draw down US emissions going forward.

But, internationally, things remain largely at the level of shadow boxing and are likely to remain so until the panic eventually sets in.