Moving past Mexico

Whether the Cancún climate summit succeeds or founders may not matter, writes Andrew Pendleton. Long-term progress depends on national politics.

The last time Cancún played host to a major inter-governmental summit was in 2003. Then, the fifth ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation collapsed after four days due to a big divide between developed and developing countries. The WTO negotiations have been in paralysis ever since.

In the build-up to the UN-led climate-change meeting in Cancún – COP16 – expectations were carefully managed, perhaps to avoid a repeat of the WTO debacle. After last years summit in Copenhagen, prior to which hopes for a new, legally binding climate treaty were raised but at which only a political accord was struck, the Mexican hosts have been keen to ensure the focus is on individual elements of the negotiations and not a comprehensive outcome.

This is wise. In the past year, very few of the factors that need to change have shown improvement and some have worsened. Most notably, in the build-up to Copenhagen, the US government was confident of passing a federal climate bill to deliver its emissions reduction pledge. But a climate bill has yet to be put before the senate, the upper house of Congress, and president Obamas Democrats have lost seats in mid-term elections.

Any attempt to push forward a substantive emissions agreement in Cancún would be likely to meet great resistance from both developed and developing countries, in part because the United States, the worlds largest contributor to existing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, cannot currently deliver. But the underlying politics of climate change in many key countries remain regressive.

Even in Europe, where 62% of people accept humanitys role in climate change, willingness to act, especially in the form of paying higher prices to reduce emissions, is relatively low. In a poll carried out by my think-tank, ippr, before the United Kingdoms 2010 elections, only 17% of voters in key marginal constituencies put climate change in their top three or four issues that would inform their voting decisions.

In Sweden, where more than 70% of people think climate change is one of the most serious problems facing the world, the Green Party polled only 7% of the vote in the 2010 elections and its coalition with the Social Democrats collapsed. In Australia’s general election, the green vote grew only slightly and polls showed voters ranked climate change eighth or lower in their list of priority issues.

The hiatus created around Copenhagen in 2009 led to a slew of high-level pledges, but collectively these fall a long way short of what appears to be necessary if the stated aim of avoiding a global average temperature increase of more than 2 degrees Celsius is to be achieved. While people in many countries are by no means as sceptical about climate science as denialists would have us believe, there is not enough political space where it matters for governments to go further.

Thus the Copenhagen Accord represents current climate politics’ high water mark. And until the politics change, the conditions for a more ambitious and binding international agreement are unlikely to change either.

Other factors, such as the creeping financial contagion in Europe, the loss of jobs in the United States and the friction between America and China concerning currency prices (with China now criticising the US for flooding markets with dollars) all conspire to undermine further the chances of a climate deal or even any real focus on climate change at all.

How can this be changed?

Climate change has to matter in a way that it currently does not. In spite of all of the noise and increasingly worrying signals from climate science, the notion of acting now for the good of the future has not had the required traction. Politics – even in China – is not made that way. And most people are concerned about household welfare, jobs, their health and their children’s education.

One approach is to link good climate outcomes with progress in other areas as, for instance, the Apollo Alliance has done with some effect on the green jobs issue in the United States. The Global Climate Network, of which ippr is a member, has done much to introduce this agenda to developing-country governments, where it arguably has even more traction; it is being taken very seriously in China and India as a result.

Chinas emerging energy-efficiency and clean-energy miracle is probably driven by concerns about energy costs and security and diversity of supply. Its closure of around 60 gigawatts of inefficient coal power and installation of 25 gigawatts of wind is proof of this. And while its emissions are still rising, the creation of big markets for clean products and services is arguably more important than the carbon-pricing project in Europe, which has had an impact on emissions but has done relatively little to help reduce the cost of new technologies.

Large-scale deployment and cost reduction through innovation will also help improve the politics. ipprs poll in the United Kingdom shows that people like renewable energy and support its deployment in principle, even if they are not concerned about climate change. However, they are significantly less willing to bear the additional costs and almost completely unwilling to pick up the tab for climate-change policies in developing countries as the UN Convention obliges developed countries to do.

The finance issue looms large and looks intractable. Newspaper headline writers have been polishing-up the phrase “stand-off in relation to the Mexican climate meeting. And their opportunity to use it may be created if talks concerning how to pay for adaptation and mitigation in developing countries are allowed to get out of hand. The Irish bailout and more quantitative easing in the United States are a crystal clear indication that now is not the time to push the industrialised world to deliver on its 18-year-old financial promise.

The careful management of COP 16 by the Mexicans has probably guarded against the UN summit going the way of the Cancún WTO ministerial meeting. But progress will be measured in small increments as a result.

Ultimately, whether the negotiations stay afloat or founder may not matter. The evidence suggests we need a focus thats firmly fixed on delivery and creating political space at the national level. If we manage this successfully, we may no longer need what is ultimately an unenforceable legal framework.


Andrew Pendleton is senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr). He also coordinates the Global Climate Network and writes the blog

Homepage image from liangzaiwww