Durban: What is so special about 2015?

The proposal to agree a climate deal by 2015 suggests politicians understand we're on the verge of a clean technology breakthrough

09 Dec 2011, 00:05

The Durban Summit enters its final day with the crucial debate centring on the EU's proposed roadmap for agreeing a new treaty by 2015 and enacting it by 2020.

The COP rumour mill suggests a deal remains possible and an agreement may yet be reached that allows the Kyoto Protocol to continue in some form, while the large emitters sign on to a new round of negotiations designed to deliver an agreement by 2015. As such accusations and counter accusations are now centring on who is pushing for this new timeline to be adopted and potentially accelerated and who wants to see a deal delayed until after 2020.

From a political perspective the current state of affairs has to be taken as encouraging, particularly given there was a real chance going into the summit that the talks would have already collapsed by this stage. It looks as if a deal can be done that will not only allow the negotiating process to continue past 2012, but may actually deliver tangible results in terms of a new global green fund, progress on aviation and shipping emissions levies, and the continued expansion of the global carbon market. As of late yesterday evening a growing coalition of countries appeared to be willing (with varying degrees of enthusiasm) to sign on to the EU's plan, including the groups of African nations, least developed countries, and island states, and Brazil, Canada, and most significantly the US.

Unfortunately, from an environmental perspective the new roadmap could prove pretty disastrous. In short, diplomats are working on a treaty to ensure that emissions peak years after scientists are recommending that they peak. Meanwhile, the fixation on agreeing a roadmap for a timeline to agree a framework that may eventually become a protocol, means the crucial issue of how countries share emissions reductions is again being filed in the tray marked "too difficult".

The pros and cons of this new roadmap have been widely discussed, but what has attracted less comment is the crucial question of why 2015 and 2020 have been elected the arbitrary dates for the agreement and then finalisation of a new treaty.

What will have changed in four and nine years' time that will suddenly make a robust international treaty viable? If you can't agree a treaty after a decade of negotiations what makes you think an extra few years will make a difference? Equally, if you really are that close to finalising the treaty everyone says they want why do you need four more years, why can't you lock yourselves in a room until this is done and announce a global deal in January? With the future of the global economy at stake the Turkey and crackers can surely wait.

There are two possible explanations for the 2015 and 2020 deadlines, one depressing, one encouraging.

The first is that this is yet another delaying tactic from countries that have no real intention of ever agreeing an ambitious global treaty. The goal is simply to turn the climate change negotiations into the ugly sister of the never ending Doha Trade Talks, where well-meaning rhetoric is followed time and time again by a willingness to kick difficult decisions into the long grass.

Under this explanation, China, India and the other emerging economies will never accept international measures to curb their emissions and the US and its dysfunctional political system will remain in hoc to oil companies and climate sceptic billionaires. Meanwhile, the EU will gullibly lap up the rhetoric in support of a deal from the other large emitters, while singularly failing to convince anyone to make binding commitments. The key dates of 2015 and 2020 are thrown into the mix because they are close enough to kid people that action is being taken, while far enough away to allow countries to continue along their carbon intensive paths unimpeded.

However, there is a more optimistic explanation for the delay until 2015 that can be found in the laboratories, factories, and offices of the world's fast expanding green businesses.

The second half of this decade is slated as the period when two major technological and economic phenomena will converge.

Firstly, the emerging generation of mainstream clean technologies will begin to roll out at scale from 2015 onwards. We will see the UK's giant offshore wind farms start generating power, the huge solar farms of China, the US, Spain, and North Africa come online, biofuel powered flights become an increasingly common occurrence, and electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles sell in their millions.

Secondly, the billions of dollars invested in the second generation of clean technologies will begin to come to fruition with analysts predicting that the second half of the decade will see the emergence of solar cells and wind turbines that can produce energy at the same cost as fossil fuels, smart grids that maximise the efficiency of every drop of energy we produce, and batteries that make electric cars viable and renewable energy reliable. Who are these radical, evangelical green analysts? Those famous tree-hugging hippies at Bloomberg and the International Energy Agency, and their eco-fundamentalist pals at companies like GE, Siemens, and IBM.

It is these converging trends that explain why the proposed delay until 2015, while hugely frustrating, might just give politicians the room they need to deliver a proper binding and ambitious treaty. They will finally have the evidence they need to sell a deal to still sceptical populations who fear cutting emissions will stall development and progress.

There is also an intriguing conspiracy theory to support this hypothesis. Talk to close observers of the long-running talks and there is a fair chance they will tell you that the real reason China repeatedly blocks an agreement is that it is stalling in order to give its fast expanding wind turbine and solar panel manufacturers time to gain complete global dominance. Once that is secured, probably sometime around 2015, they will sign up to an international treaty and sell the world the low cost energy technologies it needs to replace fossil fuels, cementing its century long global dominance once and for all.

As conspiracy theories go it is pretty convincing and it again underlines the way the US is being completely outmanoeuvred by the new emerging superpower.

It also provides a slither of hope that delaying a new international climate agreement until 2015 might not be so bad after all, as long as economies and businesses use the crucial next four years to prepare for a breakneck transition to a true low carbon economy.

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Previously known as the BusinessGreen Blog, James' Blog features musings, observations and occasional rants from BusinessGreen editor James Murray

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