Monday, March 12, 2007

Climate change: a stake in the ground

Over the weekend, the European Union decisively took the lead in the climate change debate by committing to a unilateral 20% cut in emissions by 2020. But this isn't just a matter of domestic policy and the EU being green - this is about putting a stake in the ground for negotiations on the international climate change regime that will follow Kyoto.

Those negotiations will likely begin in Bali later on this year, and will be driven by the IPCC's warning that deep cuts are needed if dangerous levels of climate change are to be avoided. The most contentious issue will be the sharing of the burden between the developed world, who are historically responsible for creating the problem through the overconsumption of fossil fuels, and the developing world, whose need for energy to drive development could undermine all the progress made so far if that energy is supplied by dirty technologies. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which provides the bedrock of any deal, recognises this tension through its principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities" and its demand that developed countries take the lead and share technology with developing nations. However, even developing countries now acknowledge they will have to accept emissions targets. Against this backdrop, the second part of the EU's announcement [PDF] - that it will cut emissions by 30%

provided that other developed countries commit themselves to comparable emission reductions and economically more advanced developing countries to contributing adequately according to their responsibilities and respective capabilities

is a good sign. By signalling they will accept a strong target from the outset, while echoing the language of the UNFCCC on common but differentiated responsibilities, the EU has laid the groundwork for a gradual expansion of the international climate change regime. The sticking point in this is of course the US - but the tide of public and policymaker opinion seems to have turned there, and their current denialist position is likely to evaporate the moment Bush leaves office (if not before).

As for New Zealand, this signals that the post-Kyoto negotiations are going to be challenging. Our long-term failure to implement policy has left us in a very bad position, and squandered the political capital we used to gain a low target for Kyoto. We will not be able to get such a good deal again, and so we are going to have a lot of catching up to do.