The Durban climate talks are closer to a breakthrough than most people think - all we need is strong leaders
There has been a lot written over the past few months about the glaring leadership deficit as the world seeks to tackle its seemingly intractable economic woes.
The newly fashionable parlour game for the media commentariat involves imagining how leaders from the not so distant past would have responded to the eurozone crisis, the banking crisis, and the growth crisis afflicting the UK and other Western economies, not to mention the seemingly inexorable transfer of power, prestige and influence to the world's emerging economies.
The general consensus among Conservative and Liberal columnists alike is that previous generations of leaders would have made a darned sight better fist of things than the drift and confusion provided by Merkel, Cameron, Sarkozy, Obama et al. Where are the strong leaders with a coherent plan, they ask? Where are the Churchills, the Roosevelts, the De Gaulles, the Kennedys, the Reagans, the Gorbachevs, the Mandelas when you need them? Hell, given the current paucity of the political response to the EU's economic train wreck there are plenty of people who would prefer to see the Kohls, Mitterands, Clintons and even Blairs of more recent history at the helm.
Such comparisons are, if not wholly inaccurate, almost always hugely unfair. The current generation of Western leaders faces a uniquely complex set of challenges and has a uniquely limited array of levers with which to solve them. Moreover, the interconnected, ultra-transparent, 24-hour news dominated, web-enabled, global village in which we now live makes it far harder to quietly exercise the old tools of statecraft that used to prove so effective at getting things done. They can't even have a private conversation slagging off a head of state they find annoying and obstructive without its being recorded and broadcast to the world.
And yet it is hard to imagine that the generation of hardened political operators who built and nurtured the EU, or ended the Cold War and secured America's position as the one remaining superpower, would fail to come up with a more compelling and coherent response to the current crises than the confusing fudge with which we are currently burdened.
Whether we choose to blame the closed shop modern that politics has become, the obsession with media spin over policy action, the debilitating influence of lobbyists, or the increasingly dysfunctional nature of our systems of democracy or governance, the art of strong political leadership undoubtedly appears to be in serious decline. And nowhere is this clearer than in the appallingly limp response to climate change and the international efforts to tackle it.
It is instructive that Christiana Figueres chose to open the Durban Summit by quoting Nelson Mandela and his memorable observation that "it always seems impossible until it is done". But sadly, there is no latter day Mandela with the rhetorical and political skills necessary to deliver a major breakthrough in attendance at Durban. In fact, very few world leaders will even bother to attend, leaving junior ministers to wrestle with the fine print of Green Funds, CDMs, REDDs, Second Commitment Periods.
The real tragedy is that we are closer than ever to a meaningful and workable global agreement on how to tackle climate change.
If you detach yourself from the increasingly fractious rows over the future of the Kyoto Protocol and the scale of climate funding on offer, large swathes of the talks are in pretty good shape.
There is near universal acceptance among the world's political and business leaders that climate change is a real and severe threat that requires urgent action, while the latest attempt by forces unknown to use hacked emails to stoke up doubts over climate science have not had a fraction of the impact they had two years ago. The Copenhagen and Cancun Accords, while insufficient on their own, have provided emission reduction pledges which, if honoured, would get the world close to the emission reductions necessary by 2020.
And, most importantly, tangible progress has been made over the past two years on key enabling mechanisms, such as the expansion of forestry credit schemes, reforms to carbon markets, the development of emissions measurement, reporting and verification standards, and crucially the formation of a $100bn a year green fund for investment in climate mitigation and adaptation projects.
Meanwhile, as BusinessGreen reports near daily, the low carbon sector is riding out the global economic turmoil surprisingly well with investment in renewables and other key infrastructure outpacing that made in carbon intensive projects, and technological developments constantly bringing down the cost of emissions reductions.
It is this context that explains why some otherwise jaded observers of these long running talks remain optimistic that significant breakthroughs can still be delivered in Durban over the next fortnight.
And yet the overwhelming emotion characterising the launch of the talks is one of unremitting pessimism.
There is not the slightest indication at this stage that a compromise can be reached to break the deadlock surrounding the vexed topic of the Kyoto Protocol, while reports from the BBC and The Guardian have revealed deep splits over when any treaty should come into effect, with the EU and others calling for any agreement to be finalised by 2015 and the US, India and others apparently pushing for nothing concrete to come into effect until 2020.
Ministers have attempted to spin this rift as a technicality, noting that those who want an agreement by 2015 would expect it to be enacted around 2020. But this ignores the central point: how can a delay of four years, let alone a delay of nine years, be justified if the world's leaders really are in agreement that we are facing an existential threat to global health and prosperity?
None of this is to underplay the real and complex barriers to an agreement that will dominate the next fortnight; you have only to look at the dysfunctional nature of US domestic politics to understand how daunting some of these challenges are. But none of them looks so insurmountable that bold and confident leadership could not find a way round them.
The framework for a deal is there. A deal based on binding emissions targets for industrialised nations, voluntary targets for poor countries and something in between for emerging economies, as well as stringent emissions reporting standards, the rapid expansion of forest protection schemes, and the creation of a public-private green investment fund. Such a treaty is already largely agreed in principle, could be enacted within a couple of years, and would command significant business support. All we are lacking is the political leadership to make it happen.
Instead, it is almost certain that we will get two weeks of bickering over technicalities that will leave those businesses leading the low carbon revolution once again having to reassure themselves that they are on the right track and their commitment to addressing the climate change threat will be vindicated. And all for the want of the kind of real political leadership made famous by Mandela and his peers.
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