An ice meltwater lake in the middle of the Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina / GETTY IMAGES
With developing countries looking for a sign that the developed world is committed to low-carbon energy, it is left to Europe to lead the way towards averting devastating climate change

The global effort to reach a legally binding agreement on tackling climate change has stalled. There is little prospect of a quick breakthrough when the negotiators reconvene at Cancun in Mexico in December. Nor is it likely that there will have been much progress by the time they meet again in Cape Town a year later.

An ocean of ink and a lot of finger pointing has been offered to explain the near collapse of the Copenhagen talks last year. Much attention has been paid to the complexity of the issue and the intricacies of the UN process. Sage voices have suggested that it was always unrealistic to expect 192 nations to reach agreement on such a difficult topic. Others have offered ingenious schemes for reforming, or even ignoring, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

As the dust settled, it became clear that much of this analysis is marginal. The central reason that Copenhagen failed was simply a lack of political will. Politicians determine outcomes, not processes. When they find processes getting in the way of a genuinely desired outcome they are well accustomed to ignoring, by-passing or innovating around the barriers to agreement.

Prior to Copenhagen, as governments from the emerging economies looked beneath the expansive climate rhetoric of those in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), what they saw was not convincing. Those governments clearly thought the problem was serious. It was also clear they were beginning to take action to reduce their emissions.

But nowhere could they see an OECD government in which the volume of capital flowing into low carbon energy investments was getting even close to the volume of capital flowing into high carbon energy investments. In politics, as in so many other walks of life, actions speak louder than words and money speaks loudest of all.

There are real economic risks and a great many unresolved political problems in making the transition to the carbon neutral energy system needed to avoid dangerous climate change. If OECD governments are not yet willing to take these risks and solve these problems, it is hardly surprising that emerging economy governments are also reluctant to do so.

Therefore, for the climate negotiations to have any prospect of making progress, it is essential that the OECD nations, the Annex 1 countries in the parlance of the UNFCCC, put their money where their mouth is. Only when the ratio of low carbon to high carbon energy investments is clearly changing in Europe and the United States will the rest of the world take our talk of climate change seriously.

This is even more important in the wake of the debacle over climate legislation in the US. No-one doubts the seriousness of the Obama administration’s climate intentions, but the unwillingness of the US Congress to rise above its parochial obsessions is a significant obstacle to restoring political momentum to the stalled climate talks. It is all too easy for others reluctant to act to make their behaviour conditional on American agreement they know will not be forthcoming.

This makes it critical for Europe to get its act together. The world is accustomed to dealing with American exceptionalism and has often found workarounds for Congressional obstacles. But if European actions do not quickly shift the ratio of low to high carbon energy investments, the scope for reaching a global agreement on climate change will become vanishingly small.

Three things will matter most to the rest of the world. Chris Huhne and his fellow ministers from France and |German have already identified the first. The EU must commit itself now to reducing its carbon emissions by 30 per cent by 2020. Because of the recession this will cost little more than it would have originally cost to get to 20 per cent. It will also significantly reduce exposure of the European economy to oil price shocks that could derail recovery. But, most importantly, it will be a strong signal that Europe really is going to build a low carbon economy.

Without deploying carbon capture and storage technologies for coal and gas, Europe has no workable climate policy. The EU has already committed several billion euros to meeting this challenge, but this money is not yet flowing into projects fast enough. Shifting Europe’s transport fleets from oil to electricity is central to building a low carbon economy. Key to making this possible is building a trans-European smart grid to optimise the availability of renewable energy technologies. The forthcoming EU budget review needs to make major provision for funding the deployment of this network.

These actions alone will not restore the political momentum necessary to move the climate negotiations forward, but without such a clear expression of political will there is no prospect that our negotiating partners will believe we are serious.

The essential day by day work of the climate negotiators – agreeing a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol, making progress on forestry or technology transfer, agreeing rules for financing mitigation and adaption and all the rest of the mind numbing detail – can only progress if there is political space to manoeuvre in. That space will be created by credible actions in the capitals of Europe, or not at all. m

Tom Burke is a visiting professor at Imperial and University College London and a founding director of E3G.