Climate Paradigm in Collapse

April 22, 2010 | Yael Borofsky,

The climate negotiations in Copenhagen resulted in a 193-nation agreement that included 154 policy commitments -- "the highest number of new government initiatives ever recorded . . . in a four-month period," according to Deutsche Bank -- but do they really matter?

In the months since the frenetic, and at times, apoplectic UNFCCC meeting, two conflicting views have emerged.

A report released earlier this month by Deutsche Bank (DB) presented analysis like those from Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Center for American Progress (CAP) showing the talks were "no failure."

As Jim Tankerlsey reported in the Chicago Tribune, DB's global head of asset management, Kevin Parker, felt the negotiations were a symbolic success:

"Copenhagen served to raise awareness of the problem all over the world, and that in turn forced governments to focus on the issue."

But a new report in Nature (subs. req'd) by researchers from the Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research and from the climate change assessment company, Climate Analytics finds that the promises are mostly empty - as in cap and trade proposals in the U.S., the loopholes make the "targets" symbolic at best.

The authors note that emissions reductions are most likely to reflect the least ambitious parts of most countries' reduction pledges. 'In the worst case, we could end up with emissions allowances exceeding the business-as-usual projections,' said lead author of the report Joeri Rogelj of PIK.

The team analysed various loopholes in the Copenhagen Accord, including the controversial area of surplus allowances, through which a country can 'store up' surplus emission allowances to use at a later date if it keeps it levels below those stated in the Kyoto Protocol.

'Under the Kyoto Protocol, some countries' targets were so weak that large amounts of surplus allowances have been and will be generated over the 2008-12 period, even without any environmental policy effort,' the authors explain. They add that countries will probably make more and more use of surplus allowances 'because anything profitable is likely to be pursued'.

A new white paper by Michael Lind, co-founder of the New America Foundation, says that this outcome was to be expected from a climate paradigm in crisis.

Lind recommends:

Progressives in the US and other democracies should reject arguments that in order to "save the earth" from climate change, radical changes in the social order or individual lifestyles are necessary. It is political poison for any progressive programme to address climate change to be associated with radical leftist denunciations of capitalism, decades-old schemes to replace cars with railroads and trolleys, or calls for economic austerity and personal asceticism motivated by nostalgia for the pre-industrial past or a moral objection to consumerism. Pragmatic progressives should insist that climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions is a technological problem with technological solutions.

Attempting to internalize the cost of carbon emissions is not leading to technology innovation. And there's little reason to expect the Kerry/Graham/Lieberman legislation (nicknamed "keggles" by Treehugger's Brian Merchant), to be released Monday, will be much stronger. Here's Earth Day founder Denis Hayes:

[Since Kerry and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) introduced an early draft last year], every subsequent change has weakened it and weakened it and weakened it, until you have a bill with enough votes, but it's not really worth anything.

But surely that's nothing that a few more reports tallying climate promises and a rally on the Mall can't fix.