The build-up was immense. Journalists buzzed, radios spat out perpetual analysis, and heads of state dashed to Copenhagen leaving pledges to save the planet in their wake.
And then, after two weeks of negotiations – the pinnacle of two years of international meetings – we got an agreement to ‘take note’ of the two and a half pages that make up the Copenhagen Accord.
Rarely has so much attention been focussed on such an outrageous anticlimax.
There’s no point pretending it isn’t a huge disappointment for hundreds of thousands of people, including RSPB members and staff, who campaigned tirelessly for a legally binding agreement. The head of the RSPB’s climate change team, Ruth Davis, landed herself at the heart of the negotiations, and stuck it out to the bitter end.
"The only thing worse than this accord would have been for the US and China – the world's biggest polluters – to agree on nothing,” says Ruth. “If we want to look on the bright side and rebuild hope, the good news is that they appeared to find some room to compromise.”
But is that where the good news ends?
“Apart from this fragile US-China detente, leaders managed to put together a tolerable sized list of pledges for 'fast start' money – cash that will take forward early action on climate change. This money might prove important to countries that need to protect their forests. It better had do, because many small nations signed up to this deal knowing they’d lose even this meagre offering if they didn’t.”
“These counties know that the deal they signed will prove disastrous for them, unless its ambition is immediately and significantly improved. It’s no wonder that one equated it to being offered ‘thirty pieces of silver’, while another labelled it a ‘suicide pact’.”
“Long-term finance looks good on paper, but there are no legal obligations or time-lines, and nothing to distinguish existing investments by private companies from new, additional, public finance. This is disappointing. We’ve a commitment to set up a task force to examine innovative ways to get cash to those that need it most, but we’ve no idea how long this will take. Gordon Brown has pledged to help set up this new body. Let’s hope he injects into this project the energy he tried to bring to Copenhagen’s chaos.”
A deal built on real carbon cuts
But the money story is only one part of the tale that Copenhagen tells. Ruth continues:
“Promises of money are a start, but this summit was supposed to be a deal built on deep cuts in carbon dioxide emissions from industrialised countries. All year, the chatter about a Copenhagen deal has omitted these targets, or they’ve been inadequate. And, surprise surprise, they are still missing or inadequate.”
“Getting these figures right would have meant fewer coal fired power stations, and fewer gas-guzzling cars. But we seem unable to bring these figures to the table. Rich countries have a new deadline to arrive at an agreement, but this seems unlikely to resolve the issue. Particularly as the EU – now a self-styled ‘climate leader’ – refuses, disgracefully, to move from its current offer of a 20 per cent cut.”
Just what did they sign up to?
Ruth points to the paragraph written into the Accord about adaptation to climate change as an example of how poor it is, and the clear chaos in which it was negotiated:
“The commitment on adaptation was intended to focus resources on the world's most vulnerable people and places. But at the last minute, the Saudi negotiators managed to pull a trick that they hadn't achieved in two full years of 'real' negotiations. They put compensation for lost oil revenues – euphemistically known as 'response measures' – on the same status as support for drought stricken farmers in Uganda, or flood management in Bangladesh! We can only guess that many of the leaders who accepted this change didn't even know what it meant.”
Ruth believes that this last lesson, coupled with the appallingly low ambition of developed countries, is the one we should learn from Copenhagen.
A chaotic race for the bottom
“We can’t blame Heads of State. They flocked to Copenhagen, partly because we asked them to. As leaders, they’re bound to try and 'fix a deal' if they’re set up to do so. It's instinctive. But that deal is unlikely to be anything more than a chaotic race to the bottom – the simplest thing they can all agree on – if their officials and representatives have not been given a proper mandate to negotiate something meaningful first.”
“That mandate has been lacking all year. The result at Copenhagen was a woeful lack of ambition from developed countries, while vulnerable countries, whose very survival was at stake, became increasingly desperate. They began to wield the only weapon they had – that of their role in the UN process – to mount a protest. They refused to move forward with the talks until more had been offered. Precious time was lost, and accusations flowed thick and fast.”
Ruth points out that these schoolyard politics were ripe for manipulation by those whose main interest was in preventing an outcome.
“The traditional bad guys like the Saudi Arabians had clear motives, but others were less obvious. China, India, and others were prepared to let the US off the hook on an ambitious, legally binding emissions cut, if it meant they in turn could avoid such obligations in future, whatever their economic status. This fear apparently drove the Chinese to insist on the removal of a global emission reduction goal at 2050, to the disgust of the European Union.”
Is there hope for keeping a deal alive?
“The victims in all this are painfully obvious,” says Ruth. “The poor, the environment, and the good name of the United Nations, which so many vulnerable people rely on as the place where their voice should be heard. Over recent months this institution has been turned into an obscene flesh market, with whole countries bought and sold in order that super-powers can indulge in macho posturing for the benefit of sceptical or bored domestic audiences. Refusing to take action to tackle climate change appears to have become a badge of national pride.”
But somewhere underneath all this mess, she insists, remains the deal that we were trying to do.
“It’s the one that negotiators across the world had worked so hard on, as far as their mandates permitted. It’s the deal that still contains the right framework, checks and balances, institutions and processes to get on with tackling this threat to our common future.”
“A new institution isn’t required to negotiate this deal. We need leaders to treat the existing UNFCCC negotiations with the respect and seriousness they deserve. We don’t need them to turn up for 24 hours, cobble together an inadequate and iniquitous accord, and then head back to their home countries brandishing bits of paper.”
“We need them to send their officials back to work with the ambition, the freedom and the remit to deliver a just, safe and inclusive future for every country on the planet.”
Ruth insists a deal is still alive – just. It’s simply buried under the two weeks of deliberation, posturing, deal-making and grandstanding that delivered the Copenhagen Accord.
A popular question that we often get asked and I’m afraid the answer isn’t a simple one. The truth is, the UK probably could reach its climate targets without wind power but it would come at a higher financial and environmental cost. It would also take a lot longer.
In 2008, the UK Government passed the Climate Change Act which set legally binding targets to tackle the dangers of climate change. The long-term target is for an 80% CO2 reduction by 2050.
The independent Committee on Climate Change has found that ‘onshore wind is likely to be one of the cheapest low-carbon options.’ (see page 25 here.)
Renewables aside, alternative low carbon options are nuclear and carbon capture and storage (CCS). CCS is where CO2 from large sources like fossil fuel power plants is captured, removed and safely stored where it will not enter the atmosphere (often deep underground in depleted oil and gas reservoirs offshore). This is new technology, as yet unproven – and costly – at the industrial scale.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has outlined its most cost effective scenario for reaching the target of an 80% cut in emissions by 2050. This combines the use of nuclear, renewable energy and CCS.
There is a risk with this scenario that nuclear and CCS won’t deliver as expected. What happens if this is the case? The good news is that it’s still possible to meet the target but it would, of course, mean greater reliance on renewables. Have a look at DECC’s renewable energy road map for a bit more detail.
Friends of the Earth has also created a scenario that doesn’t rely on nuclear or CCS, see it here. This relies more on energy savings and renewables – but not on biomass imports for burning in power stations. So it’s a realistic and green scenario from our point of view.
So, whilst it might be possible to meet our carbon targets without wind power, it features strongly in a lowest cost scenario, easiest to deploy at speed and is absolutely essential in a ‘green’ energy portfolio.
It is vital that the UK continues to support investment in onshore and offshore wind, to keep costs down and ensure the UK has a range of technologies available to keep the lights on. With the future of nuclear and CCS uncertain and biomass power stations already outstripping sustainable feedstock supplies, it would be crazy to take wind power out of the future of the energy mix.
It would be great to get your view on this, do you think wind power is necessary to meeting our climate targets?
Ellie Crane, RSPB Agriculture Policy Officer
Peter Kendall, president of the National Farmers Union (NFU) has gone on record as saying that climate change is the biggest threat facing UK farming. He points out that though farmers may be able to adapt to gradual changes in temperature, extreme weather events can be devastating. The floods, droughts and heatwaves we’ve experienced in recent years have had a severe impact on the harvest, and we can expect more of this erratic weather in the years and decades to come.
Although we don’t agree with everything Mr Kendall said in his interview (see the RSPB response here), it’s certainly welcome that such an influential figure in the farming community is speaking up about climate change. We’ve discussed the impacts of climate change on farming in a previous blog post and we agree with Mr Kendall about the seriousness of the challenges farmers are facing.
What is still lacking, however, is recognition of the challenges facing the natural world and the vital role that farmers will play in tackling them. The recent State of Nature report, a joint effort by 25 UK wildlife organisations, showed just how serious the situation is. 60% of the species studied have declined in recent decades as a result of multiple pressures, including climate change and changes in farming practices.
Recent research on farmland birds shows that, perhaps surprisingly, changes to farming are still affecting populations more than changes to climate. Although the effects of the weather can be clearly seen in year-to-year fluctuations in bird numbers, the long term populations trends closely match changes in agriculture. Farmland bird numbers fell steeply during the 1980s under the intensive farming regimes of that period, and started to level off during the 1990s as agricultural production stabilised and agri-environment schemes were introduced. We are still losing farmland birds now, but at a slower rate than in the past. There is growing evidence that climate change is affecting bird populations, but for farmland birds agricultural practices remain by far the most important factor.
So the challenge for farmers and for society is even greater than Mr Kendall makes out. Not only must we continue to grow enough food while the climate goes haywire: we must do it in ways that don’t destroy the amazing life-support system known as the natural world. In recent years, farmers and conservationists working together have made some progress in reconciling food production with protecting our environment (though there’s still a long way to go).
Let’s not throw away all this good work in a misguided attempt to grow more food at all costs.