Business leaders crave certainty from UN climate talks, but regardless of the outcome from Doha plenty of climate policies are already pretty certain
Here we go again. The UN's annual climate change summit kicked off in Doha yesterday amid the usual round of pontificating about the current state of the seemingly never-ending meeting to save the world (trademark: Copenhagen 2009).
All the perennial analysis was present and correct. We had those who maintained the talks were on the right track and that all is required is one last push. Those who insist the talks are deadlocked and the blame lies squarely with the US and other industrialised countries for failing to deliver sufficient climate funding or emission reduction ambitions. Those who agree the talks are deadlocked, but argue the blame should be shared, with China and other emerging powers also culpable for their failure to agree more demanding emission cuts. And those who declare a plague on all their houses, and want to see the interminable negotiations scrapped in favour of an entirely new international climate change policy regime.
We also had the now traditional round of climate impact reports from everyone from the UN Environment Programme to the World Bank, warning global efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions and tackle climate change are so far short of what is required that catastrophic global temperature increases of between four and six degrees Celsius by the end of the century look increasingly likely.
In fact, judging by the media coverage (or lack thereof) the only thing that appears to be missing from the annual climate diplomat jamboree is any tangible sense of urgency. If the previous two UN summits in Cancun and Durban were an exercise in downplaying expectations, which were then arguably exceeded through broadly encouraging agreements, Doha could be the first climate summit in years to be seriously undermined by lowly expectations.
Last year's Durban Platform represented a significant breakthrough, given that after 2009's Copenhagen Summit there were no guarantees the entire process wouldn't collapse. But the timetable for finalising a new international treaty by 2015 and enacting it by 2020 gives diplomats all the wriggle room they need to kick any difficult decisions that arise this week into the long grass.
The only major breakthrough that is likely to come in Doha is an extension of the Kyoto Protocol, which looks all but certain given the EU, Australia, Switzerland and Norway have signalled they will sign up to a second commitment period. Expect plenty of high profile rows between industrialised and emerging economies over climate funding and attempts to deliver an alternative treaty to Kyoto; we'll probably even get a few of the now traditional leaked negotiating texts and diplomatic walk outs. But with the deadline for such an agreement at least three years away and those parties keen to extend the Kyoto Protocol already committed to doing so, genuinely dramatic developments appear unlikely.
All of which is, of course, an immense tragedy when you consider the worsening nature of climate impacts, the extent to which an international climate change treaty could accelerate the global low carbon transition, and the fact an agreement is closer than most people think. Between them the Copenhagen Accord and the Durban Platform could easily provide the foundations for an international climate policy framework based on binding emission goals, global carbon pricing mechanisms, innovative climate funding and technology transfer mechanisms, and wide-ranging forest protection programmes, if only political leaders could overcome their short term parochial objections, and actually, y'know, lead.
However, while the delivery of a new global climate treaty would undoubtedly aid the green economic transition, it is critical businesses leaders do not kid themselves that such a treaty is either essential to green business progress or a potential panacea for green business challenges.
The argument for a treaty has always been that it stops freeloaders from taking advantage of other nations' carbon-cutting efforts, tackles so-called "carbon leakage", and ensures the scale of global action to tackle climate change is commensurate to the threat. The case for a treaty undoubtedly remains strong; businesses would undoubtedly find it easier to invest in the transition towards a low carbon economy if they knew all jurisdictions were signed up to long term emission reduction efforts and were confident their efforts to tackle climate change were being matched by their rivals.
However, with the prospect looming of another round of talks that fail to make significant progress towards the Holy Grail of an international treaty, it is more important than ever that business leaders do not use the absence of an agreement as an excuse for inaction.
Yes, a more wide-ranging and effective treaty than the Kyoto Protocol would provide a welcome additional layer of policy certainty for green businesses, but that is all it would be, one more layer of certainty. If you look closely at the breadth and ambition of climate change policy around the world currently, it is worth asking how much more certain do you want things to be?
Astute business leaders surely already know investment to tackle energy inefficiency generates guaranteed, long-term, and attractive returns, just as they know the cost of renewable energy is falling and promises an end to energy price shocks.
They also already know from the agreements brokered at Copenhagen, Cancun, and Durban, and the soon-to-be-extended Kyoto Protocol that virtually every country on the planet has either legally-binding or voluntary commitments to slash their greenhouse gas emissions of significantly curb emission growth by 2020. And they know that influential governments are giving serious countenance to new agreements that would impose carbon pricing on aviation and shipping, significantly expand the global carbon market, and result in $100bn of new climate-related investment flowing into developing countries each year from 2020.
Greater policy certainty to drive investment in low carbon energy and clean tech research and development would certainly be welcome. But business leaders know most industrialised and many developing countries now have policies in place to promote clean energy and R&D, just as they know renewable energy systems, smart grids, electric cars, and other clean technologies all boast numerous benefits and in some circumstances are cost-competitive with more established technologies.
Finally, they know climate impacts are becoming ever more pronounced and that consumer and corporate demand for green goods and services is continuing to climb, despite the tough global economic backdrop. As such they know any business that wishes to prosper in the long term has no choice but to invest in climate adaptation and mitigation.
When you consider these various nailed on certainties it becomes clear the annual UN climate carnival is a sideshow. A critically important sideshow that could yet play a major role in the emergence of the global green economy, but a sideshow all the same when set against the real business of delivering the low carbon transition.
Astute businesses already understand this and will continue to invest heavily in green technologies and services regardless of what happens in the Doha desert. But if diplomats gathered in Doha want a dramatic breakthrough to go alongside the extension of the Kyoto Protocol, perhaps they should deliver an agreement that hammers home these policy certainties to those business and political leaders still seeking to delay climate action.
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