It's been quite hard to get a real feel for progress at the COP16 climate change negotiations in Cancun this week, but the overall impression has been slow progress on a number of issues and a more reasoned debate over some of the bigger issues. This contrasts starkly with the high stakes game played by national leaders and environmental groups in Copenhagen this time last year - which famously ended with a whimper rather than a bang.
The softly, softly approach has a number of advantages. Minor disputes are not exaggerated by a story-hungry media and can be deftly resolved. Small wins create forward momentum and a positive atmosphere which can help unlock trickier conundrums. Progress can be made without the often destructive interference of either the NGO or libertarian/denial camps, one shrieking the clock is ticking and less than 100% success is failure, the other shrieking that the whole thing is a recipe for economic suicide/communism.
However, I'm still of the view that a world-wide single binding agreement is an impossible ideal. What works in Washington is unlikely to work in Kuala Lumpur and vice versa. There is nothing to stop individual nations cutting their own carbon and shifting to a low carbon economy. Furthermore, the big economies along with their huge corporations, have such global reach that the power to act is actually in relatively few hands. Destructive companies in the primary industries like forestry or oil extraction can only operate if they have customers willing to buy their produce.
Business has the power if they step up to the plate.
Looking on from afar, it is hard to judge how the climate change negotiations are going - for every 'breakthrough' story there is a counterbalancing 'deadlock' tale. But today is the day that all the world leaders are going to have to face reality - can they agree or can't they? The biggest driver now will be face - which world leader wants to have been seen to have stood in the way of success?
I'm always an optimist, so here's my worst case scenario...
1. Not getting an agreement does not stop individual action on a national level.
2. The political capital of having so many of the world's leaders turn up makes that local action much more likely. This is now a mainstream issue, not one for environment ministries.
3. The discussions have brought home some inconvenient truths about who is responsible for climate change (rich nations) and who's feeling the pain most (poor nations). A world where Tuvalu can take on China is the sort of world where I want to live.
4. Not even the best efforts of the denial dinosaurs, CRU e-mail hack and all, could impact on the process*.
5. Business can lead where Governments fear to tread. The increased awareness amongst the general public will boost green markets, lower resistance to innovations and reduce tolerance of high carbon behaviour. Green performance is already a source of competitive advantage and it will become more so.
If, through some unlikely last minute breakthrough, a legally binding agreement is made, then it is game on. High carbon businesses will soon become fossils, low carbon business will boom. I'm an optimist, I live in hope!
* If you want a bit of festive Friday fun, watch Ian Plimer, darling of the denial circuit, squirm as his "science" comes under scrutiny on Australian TV.
So the Copenhagen juggernaut judders on, with daily starts and stops, waves of optimism and pessimism, and the CRU e-mail leak providing a nice counterpoint for the press (as an aside their reporting on this has been atrocious - the phrase "hide the decline" cannot possibly refer to the last couple of years' observed data as it was written in 1999 - doh! - and they have the cheek to criticise the quality of the CRU science...). The completely coincidental, erm, coincidence of the two have given the sceptics and deniers their moment in the sun.
Most of the climate change scepticism bouncing about the media and the blogosphere at the minute seems to be predicated on the idea that it is some sort of a scam to raise taxes and curtail free trade. Leaving aside the preposterous implications of these loony conspiracy theories (thousands of scientists and politicians secretly building a world socialist government - most of them can barely manage a national government), the media has been obsessed with the "sacrifice" the world will have to make to "save the planet".
A report in New Scientist says a low carbon economy will have a minor effect on consumers, with the exception of air travel where there are no significant techno-fixes available as yet. I would go further - a high tech, low carbon future to me is an exciting one. One where the idea of sitting in a traffic jam on the way to an expensive gym after a day stuck in an air-conditioned strip-lit box would be ridiculed. I'm sitting writing this in my home office, looking out at the birds playing in the trees, having just taken a run up the valley where I live. No commuting, no air con, no strip lights, but with all the office technology I need - you can't beat it. But most of our "knowledge economy" is still acting as if its participants are making widgets, chained to their desks like 19th Century mill workers.
The UK's Climate Change Secretary, Ed Miliband, hit the nail on the head when he said "If Martin Luther King had come along and said ‘I have a nightmare’ people would not have followed him”, but he needs to practice what he preaches - the Government's recent "climate nightmare" TV ads got rightly panned by both sides. Back in the 1980s the spread of information technology presented us with the vision of a bright new future. We now need to do the same for the Low Carbon Economy.
You can always tell when things are coming to a crunch when the game gets dirty. If you are reading this blog, then you are probably aware that the University of East Anglia's IT system has been illegally hacked and e-mails between the UEA's Climate Research Unit and other climatologists leaked onto the web. This has thrown the climate change sceptics into a frenzy of outrage/delight and boosted the conspiracy theories about international socialism creating the climate change hoax to enslave the people... but if you look at the e-mails objectively, in context and with a sense of perspective, it's a load of fuss over nothing.
The timing is of course important as it brings the sceptics and deniers back into the media just when they want to be there. The same thing happened with the first Earth Summit in 1992 and around the Kyoto Protocol discussions a few years later. These attempts to muddy the waters are deliberate to protect vested interests and are to be expected, but their influence has been waning as big business shifts away from the denial camp and starts to engage proactively with the issues. A shift to morally and legally dubious tactics such as hacking could be seen as a sign of desperation.
On the other hand, I'm becoming increasingly convinced that the 'global binding deal' approach is the wrong one. It is very unlikely that such a deal could please people in Idaho and Indonesia, or Birmingham and Brunei. It also feeds the fears of those the deniers are trying to influence - people don't like being told what to do by some remote entity. There must be a model of flexible interlocking national programmes where each country can set, and vary, its own targets and programmes, with mechanisms to cover trade between them. Then we could have, in the words of Elvis, a little less conversation, a little more action.
There's an awful lot of expectation on the COP15 climate change talks at Copenhagen in December. The big carbon emitters have been circling each other like suspicious dogs, sniffing the air and waiting for who is going to move first.
Yet, when it comes to national action, China, India, France, the UK and President Obama (if not the US Senate) have all declared they are ready to act. Germany and the Nordic countries are well ahead of the game. So, going back to the views of Hermann Scheer, do we really need an international agreement? Or should we not just get on with it.
Well, yes it would help, but it wouldn't be a disaster if it failed or was only half successful. So maybe we should lower our expectations and the hype. There is a Plan B.
I preach to my clients. "Don't procrastinate, act!" You can do all the baseline and strategy work in parallel, but what is important is that you get moving, start building momentum and demonstrating results. We could do the same at a national level - individual action in parallel with international negotiation. It doesn't need to be an 'or', it can be an 'and'.
There are reports today that the Copenhagen process to agree a post-Kyoto global climate change agreement will stall as China and India will not play ball.
I'm currently reading "The Solar Economy" by maverick German MP Hermann Scheer. A full book review will follow, but he argues that Kyoto style agreements are simply an excuse to delay action and end up with the lowest common denominator as a result of the inevitable compromises. Scheer argues that nations would be much better off acting alone, acting quickly and acting ambitiously. I'm beginning to understand his point...
Barack Obama is about to put his climate change bill to Congress (the news story in this month's Low Carbon Agenda was a little premature). It has been battered, swollen with compromises and slightly watered down, but given this is the home of Big Oil, big cars and big bellies we are talking about, it would be unreasonable to expect even the saintly Obama to execute a handbrake turn in this mother of all economic supertankers. A key moment, and one which will resonate around the world.
Meanwhile the UK Government is working up a strategy for financing the shift to the low carbon economy for the Copenhagen conference later this year. Details are a bit sketchy so far, but it appears to be based on a form of contraction and convergence. Cynics may suggest that they need to focus on national leadership as well as making international noises. But overall, there is the impression of building momentum for a post-Kyoto settlement and one which will really deliver.
So, if dawn breaks on a brand new low carbon world, will you be ready for it?
I've written a couple of posts recently about the retail and automotive industries seeing green as the way out of the recession, but the rather exceptional exception to this movement is the energy industry with BP, Shell and Centrica all divesting themselves of renewables interests in recent months.
What on earth are they thinking?
Obama has made major green energy pledges, the UK Government has a huge raft of low carbon legislation coming on board and the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen this year make the Kyoto protocol conferences look like a vicar's tea party. Even though the G20 meeting in London largely steered clear of climate change, it did get some of the less enthusiastic nations to agree to take part in Copenhagen.
Low carbon pledges mean investment in, and incentives for, low carbon technology. So why on earth is Big Oil going back to, erm, oil?
It has been said that when the transistor came along it was ignored by the then dominant vacuum tube (valve) industry and, as a result, none of those companies is still in business. Big Oil should take note - they could end up as the fossilised fuel industry.