The most complex negotiations the world has ever tackled…

The UK is engaged in ‘the most complex negoitations the world has ever tackled’, as it works with other nations to forge an agreement around how to address dangerous climate change. So said a senior policy adviser from the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) yesterday evening, at an event organised by the All Party Environment Group.

Greg Barker, junior Minister of State at DECC was due to speak but was unfortunately called away on business and so was not able to brief those present on UK climate policy. However, in the course of 30 minutes or so we received a broad overview from a senior official regarding the Cancun negotiations in December 2010, and what the outcome of these might mean for the UK. He descibed Cancun as a ‘relative success’, highlighting progress on reporting and verification of countries’ emissions, reasonable progress on financing, some progress on carbon markets (including the inclusion of Carbon Capture and Storage in the Clean Development Mechanism) and progress around forestry (REDD +). Success was to agree upon this set of issues and to demonstrate that countries can make progress in a multi-year negotiating context, he said. The agreement had laid the foundations and building blocks of an ultimately successful strategy, he commented.

However, the official acknowledged that significant challenges remain for the next round of climate negotiations in Durban, later this year. We are not on a trajectory towards 2 degrees centigrade as yet (a point highlighted strongly on this morning’s Today Programme, highlighting an analysis which showed that we would need a doubling of effort, and then doubling once again to move to a 2 degree path – with the majority of effort needed by developing economies, where climate change is not currently high on the agenda). The negotiations didn’t address ‘who pays and how much, or the legal framework under which reductions in emissions could take place (a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, and which countries take on responsibility, and how much).

The speaker moved on to consider the UK’s contribution to mitigating carbon emissions and highlighted a very recent agreement to co-operate on the development of dedicated ‘low carbon zones’ within China. These will cover 180 million people, whose energy use emits as much greenhouse gas as Germany and Italy combined. The overarching message was that the UK has to get its own house in order, and be seen to do so, before it can expect to influence other nations to tackle their emissions. The UK emits only 2% of the total amount of greenhouse gases which enter the atmosphere. We could reduce our emissions to zero and make hardly a dent – however we will be very strongly affected by the impacts of climate change which result from the actions of other countries. Therefore we must ensure that we influence others to act and must lead by example.

It was disappointing not to hear a comment from Government on adaptation, as well as mitigation. Mitigating climate change – emissions reductions – was the focus of the talk and it would be interesting to hear what actions, if any, the Government is considering to adapt the UK to the climate change we are already committed to because of gases already in the atmosphere. A comment on how changing people’s behaviour could influence climate change would also have been welcome – particularly given that behaviour change is a focus for activity within the Cabinet Office at present, and the focus for the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee.

It was clear that Government expect industry to lead the way in finding innovative technologies, and money, to mitigate emissions. Yet equally important is educating the public and influencing a cultural shift in society, particularly in the context of the ‘Big Society’ agenda, a point which was overlooked.