Leading article: The climate change circus rolls on

Share
Related Topics

In assessing the importance of the climate change agreement made in Cancun yesterday, we should not confuse relief with genuine cause for celebration. The talks did not break down in acrimonious failure, which would have been bad for the prospects of humankind's sustainable stewardship of the planet. But the hailing of the deal at Cancun as a "breakthrough" is premature and excessively enthusiastic. The essence of the deal was that all countries (apart from Bolivia and Cuba) agreed not to call it a failure. Yet discussion of all the difficult issues was postponed for resolution at a later date.

In this, the Mexico summit represented a triumph of the management of expectations. After the heady millenarianism that preceded the Copenhagen conference a year ago, only to be brought down by the intransigence of the Chinese government (behind which hid the Indians and others), no one held out much hope that anything substantive could be agreed at Cancun. So, when the 193 countries reaffirmed this, committed themselves in principle to that, and expressed a determination to go on talking all the way to the next stop, Durban in South Africa, this was better than what might have been.

So the caravan rumbles on; the show stays on the road; the bicycle stays upright. All the staple metaphors of UN climate-change negotiation commentary remain in play. We are all still aboard the train; the travelling circus is still in business. This time next year it is Durban (mind you, type Cancun and South Africa into Google and the first site that comes up offers cheap flights from one to the other). It has become an annual event, with an Olympics or World-Cup-style competition to stage the next one. Qatar, appropriately enough, is in the running to provide the venue for the summit in 2012.

However, simply keeping a vast itinerant bureaucracy in being is not the point of the exercise. The ultimate question is how much the governments of the world succeed in reducing the carbon intensity of economic activity, and so far little has been achieved beyond the vagaries of switching energy sources and the steady march of technological efficiency. The key drivers of greenhouse gas output remain population growth and the economic cycle. At each conference, the participants agree a form of words and express the shining hope that the binding details can be nailed down by the time of the next one.

Of course, that is better than the alternative, which is to give up on negotiations that seek to include all the countries of the world. And, of course, we have to accept that progress in such a complex global endeavour will be painfully slow. Indeed, if we adopt a wider perspective, and strip out the expectations effect, it can be seen that Copenhagen was more successful, and Cancun less so, than the contemporary perception.

Anthony Seldon, in his instant history of Gordon Brown's government, comments, "In hindsight, the Copenhagen accord looks better than it did at the time." Within six months, most of the world's major economies, responsible for 80 per cent of global emissions, had written into it their commitments to cut emissions.

By contrast, and although progress was made at Cancun on difficult issues such as the need to account for the world's forests, little new was agreed yesterday. For example, the fate of the Kyoto protocol, the main legally binding climate-change agreement, which expires in 2012, was not decided. Much of the rest, such as more details of the scheme by which rich countries subsidise the efforts of poorer nations to curb their emissions, was a matter of elaborating the Copenhagen accord.

Let us not be churlish. Reaffirming rhetorical commitment is the precursor of practical action. Parochially, David Cameron's response to yesterday's agreement was to repeat his aspiration, saying, "This will be the greenest ever British Government." That makes it just a little harder for him to slide farther backwards. Greg Barker, the junior Climate Change minister, also made an important point when he said: "Cancun will send a strong signal of confidence to business investing billions in the new global green economy."

Keeping the travelling circus on the road is critical to confidence, and it is only if people and businesses worldwide believe that carbon-based energy will become more expensive in future that deep long-term changes will happen.

The Cancun agreement is better than nothing, but it is not enough.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nigel Farage has urged supporters to buy Mike Read's Ukip Calypso song and push it up to the No 1 spot  

Mike Read’s Ukip calypso is mesmerisingly atrocious — but it's not racist

Matthew Norman
Shirley Shackleton, wife of late journalist Gregory Shackleton, sits next to the grave of the 'Balibo Five' in Jakarta, in 2010  

Letter from Asia: The battle for the truth behind five journalists’ deaths in Indonesia

Andrew Buncombe
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album