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Hermann Scheer

Talking globally, putting the brakes on nationally

Article by Hermann Scheer, published in the German edition of "Le Monde Diplomatique", February 2010

The main reason why the public around the world were so shocked by the shameful outcome of the World Climate
Conference in Copenhagen was that they were basically unprepared for failure. Everything seemed to be pointing to
success: a manifestly pressing problem, upbeat government announcements, urgent appeals from NGOs, worldwide
media interest and the participation of numerous heads of state, who hoped to turn the meeting into a "G120" summit.

But the debacle was really not so surprising. It was not by chance that the World Climate Conference used the same
script as the 14 previous events staged since 1995: dramatic "now or never" appeals in the run-up to the conference, a
process of small-minded and paralysing haggling producing pitiable results and a decision in favour of a follow-up
conference during the event, and in the aftermath, mutual finger-pointing. One exception – albeit only in relative
terms – was the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, but even in this case it took a further six climate conferences before it
came into force in 2005. Even this agreement, however, was unable to prevent a further increase in greenhouse gas
emissions.

It is depressing to take stock of all the UN's political efforts in the area of climate protection over the last 20 years, that is
since the "Our Common Future" Conference in Norway in 1990. Since that time, greenhouse gas emissions have risen
by 40 per cent. The painstaking and, in principle, unavoidable process of finding compromise solutions at UN
conferences has ended up in compromising international climate policy. Climate diplomacy has turned into a self-
referential system which fails to address the central essential question: will the approaches pursued ever lead to a
satisfactory outcome? And can UN world conferences do anything at all about the manifest dangers facing the world?
One month prior to the debacle in Copenhagen, the World Food Summit in Rome also ended in failure despite the fact
that the number of starving people in the world has risen from 0.8 to 1.2 billion in the past ten years.

An analysis of the reasons for such a chronic failure is long overdue. In the face of decades of fruitless efforts to enforce
global governance standards by means of international agreements, the final declaration from the World Summit on
Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002 was already highlighting the danger that people were losing
confidence in their governments and regarded them as nothing more than "sounding brass".

In Copenhagen, even this "sounding brass" was missing. If one is seeking to apportion blame, it is time to examine the
very concept of the world climate conference. This is based on two highly dubious premises: firstly, that a global problem
requires a global solution in the form of a treaty in which all are subject to relatively equivalent commitments; and
secondly, that the necessary climate protection measures are to be regarded as an economic burden, so that there is a
need to negotiate a fair distribution of the burden. This boils down to the
principle of "all or none".

In the meantime, nobody can now seriously doubt that there is an urgent need to massively expand and, at the same
time, speed up climate protection initiatives. In principle there is little dispute about what the most important steps are:
speeding up the mobilization of renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. There is also agreement on the
need to prevent further soil erosion and forest clearance and instead to create new humus potential and carry out
largescale reforestation in order to retrieve CO2 from the atmosphere. It is taking too long, however, to achieve a major
consensus.

All these measures need to be tackled as swiftly as possible. Attempting to achieve an international consensus on
necessary action is, however, the slowest route to decision-making. There is an irreconcilable contradiction between
speeding up the process and achieving consensus. That is why climate conferences, rather than furthering climate
policy, do more to cripple it. Their secret motto is: "Talk globally, procrastinate nationally."

The more directly and diversely economic and social structures are affected in individual countries, the more difficult it is
to achieve a consensus on a binding international treaty enforced through sanctions. In the 1987 Montreal Protocol on
Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, which is an example of a successful global climate policy, a straightforward
approach was adopted. The Protocol simply banned the use of hydro-chlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) in refrigeration
systems. This applied only to one product component in one branch of industry and did not jeopardise individual
companies because all were subject to the same ban. Nevertheless, it still took 10 years for the agreement to become
binding.

To negotiate an international treaty on a global regime which impacts on all economic situations and methods of
consumption in vastly different ways is an infinitely more complex and controversial process. This is inevitably the case
when it comes to the issue of energy which affects industrialised countries, emerging economies and developing
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Hermann Scheer

countries, energy exporting and importing countries, and regions with highly varied settlement conditions, geographical
conditions, economic structures and technological profiles. Appealing to the sense of responsibility and good will of
governments cannot make such varied interests disappear.

In short: a substantive treaty imposing the same obligations on all can never come to pass because conditions are too
unequal. The best that can be hoped for is a consensus on minimum commitments which, in the face of acute climate
dangers, will always be set too low. But achieving even this minimum consensus is very difficult, as one world climate
conference after another has demonstrated.

The last conference in Copenhagen focused essentially on only one negotiating target which in itself represents a partial
surrender in the face of looming catastrophe: limiting greenhouse gas emissions only to the extent that global warming is
kept below 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial temperature. Thus a further escalation of climate dangers (from
the present atmospheric CO2 level of 385 ppm to 450 ppm) is deemed acceptable.

It may help to use an analogy to highlight this scandal. In 2000, the UN published its Millennium Development Goals
which included the target of halving by 2015 the number of starving people in the world from the then level of 800 million.
How would the world have reacted if, instead of this, the UN had announced the goal would be not to allow the number of
people starving in the world to grow beyond two billion? Yet it was this kind of cynicism which characterized Copenhagen
from the outset, and in the end it proved impossible even to agree on this fatalistic target.

However, the fact that such an unavoidably painstaking search for consensus ended at best with a minimum compromise
is not the only problem. From a practical perspective, this is still better than nothing because – in theory – it
leaves each country free to exceed the minimum agreed commitment. Where the climate question is concerned,
however, even this possibility is prevented by the very instruments set up to guarantee the implementation of the target:
emissions trading and the associated cap and trade mechanism. This system allows emissions certificates allocated to
every country according to their respective minimum commitments to be internationally traded. Those who emit more
greenhouse gases than they are permitted to do, for example, can buy emission rights from those who emit less than
their entitlement. This "market-based" approach requires global controls to prevent abuses, but these are hardly
workable. What the system amounts to is a zero-sum game in which the total of all global climate gas emissions is the
same as the minimum commitment. This minimum therefore in practice becomes a maximum. The concept of the global
market in emissions certificates is vaunted as being effective and the only option; in fact, it creates an economic incentive
not to exceed this minimum. The absurdity of the cap and trade mechanism is that it hinders any attempt to tackle climate
dangers in an effective way. Even if a climate protection treaty were to be successfully negotiated, while it may do a little
to slow down the escalation of the climate catastrophe over the coming decades, it would not really stem the tide.

There is a further problem inherent in the market model. Since the prices on the CO2 certificate market fluctuate, there is
little certainty in the medium term. This creates an obstacle for many climate protection investments. In order to
overcome this drawback, President Sarkozy of France and various economics institutes have proposed that a worldwide
flat price be set for emissions certificates. This, however, would do nothing to alter the fact that the total of all climate
protection investments does not exceed the minimum commitment. It is clear, therefore, that the international trade in
CO2 certificates is not the route to a global climate protection economy but instead is the very reverse of that: a road
block.

Only the neoliberal school of thought could come up with the idea of reducing all climate protection initiatives to a global
common economic denominator. Such market-fixated thinking systematically cuts out all further factors –
development related and ethical factors, for example. Emissions trading reduces the energy problem to the carbon
problem as though the current world energy system would be all right without emissions. All other factors pointing to the
need for a rapid change of course towards renewable energies and an increase in energy efficiency are left out of the
equation or declared to be of secondary importance.

This applies, for example, to such goals as reducing dependency on depleting and ever more expensive fossil energy
resources in good time, preventing hazardous airborne pollutants, or promoting regional economic activity by grasping
the opportunity for autonomous energy supply and hence improving productivity through a medium- and long-term plan
to secure future energy needs. All these factors highlight the need to work to promote a paradigm shift towards an
energy supply reliant on renewable energies and improved energy efficiency, independent of the outcome of climate
protection treaties.

The economic benefits of such a policy shift are plain to see, although they are not the same or simultaneous for all
producers and consumers. This is why it is important to create the political framework for incentives which are tailored to
the specific needs of individual countries. Such an approach is irreconcilable, however, with a global market model for
CO2 certificates.

The great changeover to renewable energies and greater energy efficiency which cannot be put off any longer requires a
technological revolution brought about on a deliberate and targeted basis. None of the technological revolutions of the
new industrial age were the outcome of an international treaty with fixed worldwide parameters; one only has to think of
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Hermann Scheer

the ever onward marching IT revolution. The ground for every breakthrough was prepared by pioneers drawing others in
their wake.

The problem with the concept underlying current world climate policy is that it attempts quite hopelessly to make
everyone move forward at the same pace. Thus absurdly a neoliberal model for CO2 emissions certificates is supposed
to operate within the framework of a centrally imposed dirigiste minimum limit. This contradiction is based on the false
basic assumption that the energy turnaround has to be regarded as an economic burden, whereas in reality it represents
a major opportunity for the global economy.

There is therefore no compelling reason to wait for an international climate protection treaty. The attitude of different
governments stems above all from their wish as far as possible to shield the producers of climate-damaging energy in
their own countries. It also signals a lack of courage to introduce the structural change associated with an energy
turnaround which may compromise the interests of the conventional energy companies. In this case, an international
treaty is needed as a decision-making crutch.

If world climate conferences are to achieve anything, they will have to look at other topics, of which there is no shortage.
Why are there no discussions on dismantling trade barriers and introducing uniform industrial standards for the new
technologies? Other subjects might include a new fund for relevant investments in developing countries, funded by a
global tax on aircraft fuel, or interest-free loans for the energy investments of developing countries, and last but not least,
the question of how to effectively and rapidly expand the recently created International Renewable Energy Agency
(IRENA).

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