UN Talks Just the Cherry on the Top of the Cake?
Published 02nd November 2010 - 1 comments - 932 views -
On a cold and dark Monday night, four climate experts got together for an open debate at the Guardian offices in London. Asked, ‘Will the UN climate talks help save the planet or is it time to look elsewhere?’ - Each had five minutes to deliver their opening statements. Believe it or not, neither the weather nor the topic had deterred people from giving up both their evening and £10 for a ticket. ‘We’re the new comedy, we’re what people want to go and see,’ joked one panellist as he admitted that such expectations were an added pressure.
Of all the comments from last night, waking up today, one sticks out above all else in my mind. Not because it was revolutionary nor a magical solution to the problem of climate change, but because it was the most glaringly obvious bit of common sense – ‘It’s about preserving the only place we have to live’… If we all kept that in mind, things might be a bit different.
These were the words of Paul Foote, Managing Director of the Conservative (with a small ‘c’) Environment Network. Foote used his five minutes well, focussing his thoughts and simplifying the complexity of the challenge, which lies ahead. Climate change, he insisted, is ‘the most important issue… the context for everything else’. Whilst we may well be limited by certain political realities, there is scope for us to shape these, ‘Nothing sharpens political will like an electorate who cares’. He therefore declared constant pressure the means to achieving necessary progression in decarbonising the world.
Michael Jacobs, (Grantham Institute, LSE and former Special Adviser to Gordon Brown) sought to counter the mood of pessimism, which he believes would be ‘profoundly damaging’. Ultimately, it achieves nothing and serves only to induce apathy and fatalism. He labelled such undue pessimism as an ‘NGO mistake’, and urged them to refrain from indulging in entirely negative rhetoric.
When it came to answering the title question, Jacobs insisted that lowering emissions is not the be-all-and-end-all, the focus out to shift from international agreements to generating and using low carbon energy, taking action against deforestation, moving towards a low carbon economy and taking domestic action. ‘Countries will only sign up internationally if they have already acted domestically’. Consent, he concluded, was needed, not brute force.
Tom Burke (OBE, Founder Director of E3G and Visiting Professor at Imperial College) attributed our collective failure so far to the fact that climate change is unlike any other problem humans have ever had to deal with. ‘We’re not good at dealing with specific targets by a specific time’. In this instance, it’s a case of having to de-carbonise the world’s economy by half-way through this century. Despite these doubts, Burke was adamant that it can be done, technology is not the problem, not the economy. ‘The problem is with the economists’, he joked, but there is more than an element of truth in that statement. When it comes to Cancun, Burke says the prospects aren’t good, ‘we’ll make some progress on the margins, but the main gain is what we do at home’.
The final panelist, Matthew Lockwood, Associate Director, Institute for Public Policy Research, put the blame firmly on the lack political will. ‘The sense of urgency drives the NGO community, but nothing else.’ A questionnaire asking British voters to rank issues of importance came back with climate change at a dismal 12 out of a possible 14. Whilst India and China have their sights firmly set on growth, the UK on cuts, and the US on the infamous Tea Party, climate change has no real place on the agenda of anyone in power. Working together to build trust is a good place to starts, according to Lockwood, who says that despite trackers, we still don’t know nearly enough about what other countries are doing. In recommending that we put the UN process to one side, he echoed the sentiments of his fellow panelists, and instead turned his attentions to cooperation, and what that could achieve.
I got the distinct impression from the panelists that a flop at Cancun would not be the catastrophic problem we assume it would be - that is if countries individually step up and start taking decisive and meaningful action.
The fact that last year more money was invested in renewable energy than fossil fuels hints at both the cake and the much coveted cherry on top being within our reach. As to whether or not we get it, we'll have to wait and see...
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