UK climate change policy is a colossal and pointless waste of money
It is maintained that the Parties to the Convention have previously ‘agreed’ that a 2°C limit should be placed on global warming. Though the diplomacy principally of the UK and the EU and the collaboration of the UN Climate Change Secretariat have led to this limit in various ways mentioned at Climate Change Conferences, no such agreement exists.
It is maintained that most of the Parties have committed themselves to reduce their emissions in the statements of their ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contributions’ which form the basis of negotiation. None of the major emitters have made any such commitment. If one regards the EU as such an emitter, then one Party at least appears to have made such a commitment. But this is a function of treating the EU, a transnational organisation, as a single Party. The EU has never been able to set an absolute emissions reduction commitment for its Member Countries and its Paris commitment does not directly bind any of the Member Countries which actually emit and could in theory stop emitting, but won’t. It is purely aspirational and, on all previous experience outside of the UK and possibly Germany, worthless.
Much more importantly, the statements of the two most important Parties, China and India, are even clearer statements of the adamantine refusal to accept any absolute emissions which they have maintained throughout the history of climate change negotiations. The basic wrong belief that is being maintained is that it will be possible to reach a binding absolute global emissions reduction at all. There is no possibility whatsoever of such an agreement. It is absurd that China and, in in Paris, more particularly India are being criticised for this refusal as if it was something novel. They have maintained this position for a quarter century.
There is, however, a much more sophisticated approach being taken by what we should call the climate change policy cognoscenti, represented in the UK by Lord Stern. Having got their fingers very badly burned at Copenhagen, the ‘last chance to save the planet’ which ended in fiasco, these cognoscenti do not believe a binding agreement will be reached in Paris and are already seeking to redefine the goal of the negotiation process so that international climate change policy can continue even after the impossibility of the agreement which has long been maintained to be its only possible foundation is acknowledged.
With this far more sophisticated approach threatening to do what one would have thought impossible by introducing a far greater degree of casuistry into climate change policy than that which has disfigured it so far, perhaps one thing should now be said. The fundamental legal reason why no commitment to emissions reductions agreed, is that the UN negotiation process has agreed that this should not be done.
A quarter century of climate change negotiations have yielded only two really important agreements. The first, agreed in the Convention, was that GHG emissions should be stabilised ‘at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference’. But this is tautological and completely vague. It was intended that it would lead to a concrete global emissions reduction target. However, no such has target has been in any way established by subsequent climate change negotiations.
The second important agreement, the much more concrete Art 4(7) of the Convention, is that climate change policy ‘will take fully into account that economic and social development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of the developing country Parties’. As growth is strongly correlated with emissions, this is an agreement that no absolute caps can be placed on these countries’ emissions. As the major industrialising countries such as China and India are included in the category of developing countries, this has meant, not merely that global emissions reduction has always been impossible, but that this was agreed by the Parties to the Convention, including what is now the EU and the UK.
How is it that national authorities, most significantly for the readers of this blog the UK government, can now be publicly claiming to want the Paris Conference to reach an agreement that those authorities, including the UK government, have agreed can never be reached? Taking the most generous possible view, the incompetence displayed may be traced to a truly desperate optimism. The major industrialising countries would never have become signatories to the Convention without a provision such as Art 4(7). Rather than form policy within this limitation, which would have required the abandonment of the goal of mitigation, the UK and others committed to mitigation brought those countries in on terms which have ensured the failure of the policy from the outset. After Copenhagen at the very latest, the disastrous mistake should have been acknowledged, but Paris is evidence of the continued pursuit of the impossible.
Amidst the impending official and media reports of the results of the Paris Conference which will bewilder the public by painting as a success the utter failure to reach the necessary agreement, the UK political process must sheet home responsibility for this immense government failure.
The situation at the conclusion of the Conference will be that the UK will have spent hundreds of billions on, and remain committed to, a policy which will cost trillions to the extent it is ever rolled out, with no possibility of that policy making any contribution at all to global emissions reductions. This policy has caused great environmental damage, imposed large costs on each taxpayer and energy bill payer, and will eventually lead to grid failure. It has done so whilst it is impossible that the costs incurred could generate any of the benefits claimed, and that impossibility is a consequence of an agreement the UK government itself made in 1992! If UK policy after Paris is to pursue the goals of rationality in economic policy and democratic accountability for failure to pursue an at all rational policy, the most thorough inquiry into the source of this failure must be made and those responsible for the failure removed from future policy making.
On the basis of the UK government’s demonstrated ability over more than a quarter century to live in the fantasy world of fruitless climate change negotiations, I have no confidence at all that yet another failure in Paris will lead to any such inquiry.
Prof David Campbell is Professor of Law at Lancaster University Law School. He is the author of the paper ‘What is climate change policy now trying to achieve’, published in Economic Affairs.