Vision and courage are needed from politicians and companies to dodge the many hazards on the road to a new global climate change deal, says Damian Ryan

Visitors to the UN Climate Change Secretariat’s website are confronted with a ticking timer. Counting down from the end of the recent climate change conference in Poznan, the display indicates the time left until the next conference in Copenhagen in December. The secretariat’s counting clock is a stark reminder that imminent action is required if disaster is to be averted.

Over the next 310 days, 21 hours, 59 minutes and 33 seconds (and counting) countries must, among other things:

  • agree a shared long-term vision (ideally a global emission reduction target of at least 50% by 2050 relative to 1990 levels);
  • set mid-term emission reductions for individual developed countries (ideally to 2020);
  • develop international financing mechanisms to support emission reduction and adaptation programmes in developing countries;
  • resolve the problem of tropical deforestation; and
  • address a range of other cross-cutting issues such as technology transfer and capacity building.

Two factors are likely to dominate the process: the position of the new US administration and the impact of the ongoing global financial and economic crisis.

The initial signs of a far more proactive and ambitious US administration are promising. President Barack Obama’s nomination of leading climate change advocates to top energy and environmental positions, talk of a green stimulus package, and a campaign pledge to implement an emissions trading system are a seismic shift in policy direction from the Bush years.

Much, however, depends on the US Congress – the only branch of government able to enact legislation and ratify international treaties. While signs are also promising here, with several key committees now chaired by supporters of ambitious climate policies, the spectre of deep recession may well cast a shadow over Washington’s capacity for action.

This shadow of course extends far beyond the US. With economies slowing or contracting in both developed and developing countries, there is a fear that the tougher political decisions – ones that carry a financial cost – will be delayed until the good times return. Encouragingly, the political rhetoric at Poznan acknowledged that the pain of a (relatively) short economic crisis was not justification for delaying action to avert a much larger and more deadly climate crisis.

Costing the earth

Whether action matches rhetoric is yet to be seen, however. Calls for a global “New Green Deal” to fund the development and deployment of new low-carbon technologies are increasing, but in hard times countries are likely to concentrate on immediate and domestic priorities. Farsighted leadership from all the world’s major economies will be crucial for nations to reconcile the current climate and economic challenges.

The wealth of international meetings over the coming year will act as important indicators of just how committed leaders are. In addition to at least four UN climate change negotiating sessions (in March, June, September and December), leading countries are likely to try to advance work through the G8 in July, a heads of government meeting under the UN secretary-general’s authority and possibly a new major economies process. The political messages delivered at these events – or even better, the concrete commitments made – will provide an important guide to the likely outcome from Copenhagen.

Leaving all the heavy lifting to governments carries risk, however. Ultimately, countries will only sign up to an agreement that is politically acceptable domestically. America’s failure to ratify the Kyoto Protocol is a case in point. Raising the voices of constituencies in key countries that support ambitious action will therefore be important to support the political process in 2009.

Businesses that recognise the opportunities offered by a low-carbon economy have a key role to play here. By demonstrating what is possible given the right incentives, industry can do much to dispel the fear and scepticism that often surrounds ambitious action.

So the busy road to Copenhagen is also complex. Although countries know the solutions available, there remains a gap between the demands of the climate science and the realities of international politics. While a deal in Copenhagen remains firmly on the table, 2009 will need to see a renewed level of political leadership, an embracing of low-carbon opportunities and the rejection of a zero-sum approach to negotiations. The clock is ticking.

Damian Ryan is a member of the international policy team at the Climate Group.

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