The Road to Paris: three myths about international climate talks

Hopes for a singular breakthrough at the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks were dashed, but that doesn’t mean the negotiating process isn’t making quiet progress. EPA/Henning Bagger/AAP

With only nine months to go before the most important international meeting on climate change since Copenhagen in 2009, what are the chances of success at this year’s Paris talks? What might “success” mean? And can the mistakes and challenges that have befallen previous meetings be avoided and tackled?

To help address these questions, let’s first dispense with three pervasive myths that continue to make the task of achieving an adequate global response to climate change harder.

Myth 1: the international climate negotiations have failed

There is a widespread belief that more than 20 years of international climate negotiations have been a waste of time. They haven’t. Developing methods to account for atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions, awarding funding for taking these measurements, reporting and verifying emissions reductions, and, in the case of the Kyoto Protocol, fashioning one of the most ambitious agreements in international law – none of this would have happened without the negotiating process provided by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Although the 1997 Kyoto agreement proved flawed, it led directly to multi-state policy responses such as the European emissions trading scheme and to national carbon-budgeting legislation such as Britain’s Climate Change Act, not to mention a plethora of policies and incentives to promote renewable technologies and infrastructure.

The frustration is not that the international process has failed, so much as that the success so far has been only partial, and nowhere near what is needed to reduce the risks of climate change effectively. Far from advocates and negotiators being to blame, the shortcoming is more due to the complexity of the problem, the power of fossil fuel interests, and the nature of the ever-changing globalised economy. Disappointment at what the international process has achieved should only be a reason for us to redouble our efforts, not give up on achieving a multilateral agreement on a problem shared by us all.

Myth 2: it’s mainly about just getting countries to sign up

Despite the climate problem having been defined by the media and many environmental groups as essentially binary (either you advocate climate action, or you don’t), it isn’t. The world has never had to address a problem of this magnitude – one that knows no boundaries and has causes that are closely linked to the post-industrial infrastructure that has done so much to drive economic growth and human betterment.

Let’s be grown-up about the magnitude of the task: we need to change our energy, electricity and transport systems at an unprecedented scale and with unprecedented speed, globally.

The change required in electricity generation, distribution and use is very much like the transformation in digital communications over the past 20 years. But there is one important difference. Unlike the world of possibilities opened up by the digital revolution, the amenity most of us enjoy from electricity will, at best, remain unchanged. To the end-user, the electricity created by solar cells or wind doesn’t feel, work, smell or look better than that generated by coal.

To continue the analogy, the energy revolution won’t deliver an electricity equivalent of upgrading your simple old phone to a sleekly designed smartphone with hundreds of new possible uses. It will be like having the same old land line but with different technology behind it.

Addressing the climate problem and measurably reducing the risk of climate change is a massively complicated, “wicked” problem. We’d like it to be straightforward, but unfortunately the British climate economist Lord Stern of Brentford was right when he memorably described the climate challenge as “a complex inter-temporal international collective action problem under uncertainty”.

If it were just about agreeing ever more ambitious targets and replacing “evil” fossil fuels with nice clean ones, success would be easy. But it’s not.

Effective climate policies have to do more than just price carbon: they have to change the way we develop our cities and land; ensure we value and preserve forests; and allow us to generate clean electricity and transport ourselves and all the things we buy and enjoy, in ways that no longer involve the combustion of fossil fuels.

Some countries are going to have to continue using coal for a considerable time yet; there remain significant technological challenges to using renewables for more than electricity generation (such as in making concrete, steel and aluminium), and notwithstanding the appeal of electric vehicles, the shift away from oil as the primary fuel for transport requires a lot more than changes to the private car fleet. Transport isn’t just about moving people; everything on the table in front of you was made somewhere else and fossil fuels were burned to get it to you.

Despite all the detailed analysis, august reports and newspaper column inches, climate policy remains immature. The first national climate policy was launched by President Clinton a mere 21 years ago. Developing policies with the scope and potency required is an unprecedented challenge that will see failure, learning and – as with all meaningful change – some measure of loss and cost.

Myth 3: we just need countries to “see the light”

There remains a misplaced hope among many advocates of ambitious climate policy that there will come a point when shards of truth and light and wisdom suddenly begin to cascade through a major international meeting. These hopes were first pinned on the Kyoto summit, then it was Montreal, then Bali, then famously Copenhagen, and now Paris.

I’ve described this view as a myth, but really it is a woefully naïve understanding of how political power operates and international agreements are secured. Given the complexity of the challenge – and frustrating as it is, given the risks posed to our climate – progressive incremental change is all that can be achieved.

It didn’t feel like it at the time, but I was fortunate to observe US President Barack Obama in Copenhagen. His performance as a negotiator trying to salvage some modicum of agreement out of what others had let become a train wreck, was almost chilling in its effectiveness. This was hard work, and doubly so when all that he could achieve was avoiding complete failure.

US President Barack Obama’s salvage mission at Copenhagen was effective, but his comments afterwards showed his frustration. EPA/Soren Bidstrup/AAP

For such a noted orator there was no rhetoric on leaving the Danish capital, just a cool-headed acceptance of where the politics of climate had thus far failed, and the need to re-double our efforts:

This is hard within countries; it’s going to be even harder between countries … hard stuff requires not paralysis, but going ahead and making the best of the situation that you’re in, and then continually trying to improve and make progress from there.

The President wasn’t scripted, he was frustrated and tired. And he was right.

Much has changed in the five years since Copenhagen. The toxic confusion of domestic climate policy in countries such as Australia should not blind us to these important, and largely positive, developments.

So while I firmly believe it is wrong to expect a singular triumph or an outright disaster in Paris, there are reasons why I believe that this year’s outcome can be both significant and positive.

This is part 1 of a three-part essay on the prospects for a global climate deal at the Paris 2015 talks. You can read part 2 here and part 3 here.