Economist Noreena Hertz on the Politics of Global Climate Change

September 25th, 2009

We won’t be able to save the world in 74 days. That’s how long until the Copenhagen climate change summit. But the serious players are already looking farther ahead.

By Noreena Hertz

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When the panda smiles the world applauds. Or so it seemed on Tuesday after President Hu Jintao’s speech at the UN. From the way that much of the media reported his words it was as if China had actually made an important announcement on cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

It hadn’t. All Mr Hu actually said was that China would now “endeavour” to curb its carbon emissions by a “notable” margin. But how does one measure “endeavour” or “notable”? As someone with close links to the Chinese administration told me when pressed: “What was said was actually pretty meaningless.”

There were no specific targets and, as any China watcher knows, this green story is old news. Official Chinese policy over the past couple of years has been to make GDP growth more green. But not at the expense of growth itself — and China plans to grow pretty fast.

At least, I suppose, the panda smiled. Poor Barack Obama didn’t even have that to offer. There was no pledge to cut emissions, and with vote-sapping battles already afoot over healthcare reform, one wonders how much time and energy the President will have for environmental imperatives.

I fear, therefore, that all we got at the UN this week was insubstantial rhetoric. The bad news is that we are likely to get more of that today at the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh. When I asked one finance minister what he expected to be delivered on climate change there, he said, rather wistfully: “Words, just words.”

Given that we are now only 74 days from the Copenhagen summit, which was supposed to frame the successor agreement to Kyoto that would stop climate change in its tracks, this is depressing. Perhaps the only people not suddenly depressed are those immersed in the negotiations. With more than a thousand points still to be agreed, all the policymakers I’ve spoken to recently say that they cannot see how a meaningful deal can be reached by December in Copenhagen.

In reality, everyone is already gearing up behind the scenes for what I would call “Copenhagen 2”, and what those more involved are calling “an even greater slog”. Even if some sort of communiqué is cobbled together in December — something that countries with elections coming up will push for — it is hard to believe that it will be detailed enough and committed enough to have the impact so desperately needed.

Part of the reason why “Copenhagen 1” was always bound to fail, and this may sound strange at first, is because it is all about climate change. For although its goal always should have been cuts in CO2 emissions, and agreement on funding and finance, the geopolitical reality is that climate change cannot be decoupled from trade or discussions on exchange rates, the IMF, reform of the UN and so on. There is a quid pro quo that no one explicitly talks about but which must be addressed — trade-offs between these negotiations, not just within them. We won’t see meaningful action on climate change until it is negotiated within this broader framework.

This means taking the issue out of its present compartment and being realistic enough to understand that Brazil’s position on cutting down rainforests, for example, will be affected by whether or not it is given a seat on the UN Security Council. It means being sophisticated enough to understand that as long as China feels under pressure to stop propping up the renmimbi, it is unlikely to deliver commitments on emissions cuts.

Widening the scope of the next round of negotiations so that much more can be used as bargaining chips will make the job of negotiators considerably harder. But it will also give them considerably more to work with. Copenhagen 2 not only has to navigate this complicated terrain but it must do so in less than five years. The climate bomb is ticking, and there is a palpable sense of urgency among policymakers.

For if emissions do not fall before 2015, and only fall from then onwards (and the overall trend is that they have been rising), as the International Panel on Climate Change has warned very explicitly, we will reach the point of no return. The Armageddon scenarios of droughts, floods, energy and resource wars, mass migration and rising sea levels will become a reality.

A year from now the world is very likely still to be engaged in the most important negotiations of our lifetime, which will determine the safety and security of our children, grandchildren and our entire planet.

So it is essential to reflect hard on which party can best negotiate internationally on climate change. Labour has a poor record, with Britain almost bottom of Western Europe’s league tables on the environment. The Tories? Joining forces in Europe with climate-change deniers hardly gives them the best chance.

Which leaves the Liberal Democrats, a party that got the environment years before anyone else, and is the most inherently multilateralist. The environment is too important to leave under the aegis of the two main parties. A Lib Dem influence on the environment in the next Parliament is essential. Nick Clegg, who talks convincingly on this subject, should focus on ensuring it in the coming months.

Noreena Hertz is Professor of Globalisation, Sustainability and Finance at Duisenberg School of Finance and a Fellow of the Judge Business School, University of Cambridge