The G8 and climate change: towards Copenhagen

Andrew Pendleton
8 July 2009

No nation wants a global climate-change deal this year more than Denmark. Its capital, Copenhagen, plays host on 7-18 December 2009 to the next big United Nations summit on global warming - which marks the end of two years of increasingly fraught negotiation to reach agreement. The global stakes are high; and for the modest Danes, the event holds out the prize of a new, international accord bearing the name of their capital city - the "Copenhagen protocol", perhaps.

The Global Climate Network is an alliance of nine influential think-tanks in countries key to successful international action on climate change. Its secretariat is based at the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr) in London. Its prominent representatives  are:

John D Podesta
, president and CEO, Center for American Progress, USA

Rajendra K Pachauri
, director-general of the Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), India; chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

Jiahua Pan
, executive director of the Research Centre for Sustainable Development at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, China

Rubens Born
, director, Vitae Civilis, Brazil

Manfred Fischedick,
vice-president, Wuppertal Institute, Germany

John Connor
, chief executive, The Climate Institute, Australia

Lisa Harker
and Carey Oppenheim, co-directors, ippr, UK

Andrew Gilder
, director, IMBEWU Sustainability Legal Specialists, South Africa

Ewah Eleri
, director, International Centre for Energy, Environment and Development, NigeriFrom the perspective of early July, however, there is a long way to go. As leaders of the world's major economies - which are also its biggest greenhouse-gas emitters - gather for the G8 summit in L'Aquila, Italy, on 8-10 July to try to add urgency to the search for a Copenhagen deal, it is clear that profound and fundamental disagreements on critical issues persist. How to break the deadlock? Most commentators will seek the answer in the headline issue of emissions-reduction targets. But the relatively neglected area of negotiations on transferring technology and finance to developing countries to support a radical shift in their model of industrial growth is of equal importance.

The technology fix

When the climate debate was coming of age, the "numbers game" - which country will cut what quantity of greenhouse-gas emissions by when and relative to what baseline - was at the top of everyone's list of priorities. Logically, since the problem is precisely about the quantity of gas being pumped into the atmosphere, setting targets to reduce emissions was the best way of understanding the structure of the problem. But targets do not lead to emissions cuts: policies and actions do.

I am not for a moment arguing that industrialised countries should be excused their responsibilities; they must take on ambitious, legally-binding commitments as part of a new deal. But the fight against climate change will not be won without a technology revolution - yet technology is still the poor relation of other issues in the negotiations.

The promise - and the frustration - lie in the fact that many of the technologies needed to fight climate change are within our grasp. But to seize this opportunity, a much better understanding of why we have not yet managed to harness their potential - of why low-carbon technologies of even the most rudimentary nature remain underexploited - is desperately needed.

The Global Climate Network - a prestigious alliance of influential think-tanks in countries key to successful international action, of which the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr) is a founder member - publishes a joint study on 8 July 2009 that examines the barriers in the way of much wider use of low-carbon technology. The results are surprising; if they are taken on board they could help leaders of G8 countries and the rich states grouped in the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate (MEF) to bridge the gap between reality and aspiration.

Three lessons

Our research involved speaking to more than 100 leading businesspeople, government officials and academics in eight countries - Australia, Brazil, China, Germany, India, Nigeria, South Africa and the United States. Three conclusions emerged.

The first is that a "low-carbon technology revolution" will not happen by itself: it requires government intervention. A major block to the wider use of low-carbon technology is the lack of coherent policy at the domestic level, in both industrialised and developing countries. This, we conclude, requires industrial activism of the like that - over two decades of neo-liberal hegemony in the developed world - became unfashionable. Will the current economic crisis lead to a long-term reversal of the trend?

The case that government should have a strong role in driving new, low-carbon technology is compelling. This is clear in the way that each individual policy-shift has much larger implications. For instance, if electric vehicles are to become the norm in big cities, then recharging-points will have to be installed, parking facilities will have to be altered and vehicle design will have to be driven in this direction. If this kind of initiative is not led by governments, then who else will lead it?

That said, activism by governments has to be executed with a light touch so as to unleash and not stifle low-carbon entrepreneurial spirit. Furthermore, the subsidies and other favours that carbon-intensive industries still enjoy - an issue raised by some of the interviewees in our study - will have to be phased out.

The second conclusion is the inescapable need for finance. Almost all of those whom we interviewed in our study identified the lack of upfront cash, and in some cases (carbon-capture technology [CCS], for example) higher running-costs as among the obstacles to low-carbon technology. Here a public-private partnership seems essential: the private sector may well ultimately be the main source of finance for the low-carbon technology revolution, but governments will have to lead to make new technologies cheaper and less risky. The existing United Nations climate agreement requires developed countries to be the major contributors to this effort.

The financial crisis may make it harder for sovereign governments to contemplate helping global and not just national decarbonisation. Barack Obama's championing of greater energy independence and of job-creation through green expansion is a good example of a progressive national project at work. But there has also to be greater clarity about the all-round benefits of the process - by projecting the low-carbon narrative onto the international sphere and linking it to the reality of global economic interdependence. 

Andrew Pendleton is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr) in London

Also by Andrew Pendleton in openDemocracy:

"The global politics of climate-change: after the G8" (17 July 2008) 

After all, it is also in the interest of the US, Europe and Japan to expand the markets for low-carbon technologies in India,  China and across continental Africa - for they are currently the main inventors of these technologies. The shared advantages of the low-carbon revolution must be understood more widely. The danger, however, is that every nation will want to be both producer and consumer of everything; a great deal more intergovernmental collaboration, as well as the unleashing of low-carbon entrepreneurial spirit, will be needed to resolve this.

The third conclusion from our research is the need for an "international technologies initiative". This idea, endorsed by Britain's ex-prime minister Tony Blair, could help accelerate the collaborative development of new technology and realise the brightest and best ideas from the difficult demonstration stage through to full commercial production and deployment. The so-called "valley of death" in which many great ideas perish for want of finance must not be allowed to kill off potentially important low-carbon innovations.

The current financial constraints reinforce more routine difficulties in technological cooperation. But the message of our research to the G8 and the Major Economies Forum is to take a direct route and circumvent these as much as possible by:

* putting technology at the heart of negotiations

* rewarding robust national low-carbon development strategies

* pooling resources to invest in research & development and demonstration

* focusing on know-how as much as equipment

* sharing knowledge and propagating skills.

A time to commit

There is even more to be done. All the countries represented at the L'Aquila summit are doing something to encourage low-carbon technology - and some are doing a lot. But none has a coherent low-carbon growth or development strategy. This wider strategy advocated by the  Global Climate Network would include tough carbon standards for specific products or sectors; tax incentives to drive investment in low-carbon energy; structural changes to energy markets to encourage greater efficiency and renewable energy and government support for research, development and deployment.

The chances of success at the Copenhagen summit in December are already in the balance. They depend on reaching consensus in all of the key areas of the climate negotiation - emissions-reduction targets included. But the collective need for a technology revolution to fight climate change and achieve the necessary reductions is overwhelming. A clear commitment by G8 countries to find finance for this endeavour and agreement at the MEF to collaborate on the development of new technology could yet lay the foundations for agreement. A turning-point protocol that will benefit the world - and please the Danes too. The prize is too great to let slip away.

openDemocracy writers explore the politics of climate change, including the debate of that name (edited by Caspar Henderson) in 2004-05:

Stephan Harrison, "Kazakhstan: glaciers and geopolitics" (27 May 2005)

Camilla Toulmin, "Climate change, global justice: letter to Al Gore" (27 July 2006)

Simon Retallack, "Climate change: the global test" (10 November 2006)

Tom Burke, "Climate change: choosing the tools" (21 December 2006)

Dougald Hine, "Climate change: a question of democracy" (2 March 2007)

Andrew Dobson, "A politics of global warming: the social-science resource" (29 March 2007)

Andrew Dobson, "A climate of crisis: towards the eco-state" (19 September 2007)

Mike Hulme, "Climate change: from issue to magnifier" (19 October 2007)

David Shearman, "Democracy and climate change: a story of failure" (7 November 2007)

Tom Burke, "The world and climate change: all together now" (7 December 2007)

Saleemul Huq, Oliver Tickell, David Steven, Camilla Toulmin, Andrew Dobson and Alun Anderson, "Was Bali a success?" (18 December 2007)

Mike Hulme, "Climate security: the new determinism" (20 December 2007)

Mike Hulme, "Amid the financial storm: redirecting climate change" (30 October 2008)

Camilla Toulmin, "Climate change futures: postcard from Poznan" (11 December 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Climate change: rock the state, save the planet" (21 April 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Climate change: a failure of leadership" (8 May 2009)

Simon Maxwell, "The politics of climate change" (15 June 2009)

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