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Copenhagen is the last chance to save the world

Updated Thursday 26th March 2009

As we approach the Copenhagen climate conference, Joe Smith suggests that we put too much emphasis on single events

If I had a pound for every time an environmentalist set a near and scary deadline for serious action on climate change I would be able to retire to a Norwegian mountaintop survival pod and await the end of civilisation tomorrow. The next date in the diary is the UN climate policy meeting in Copenhagen in early December this year (‘UN FCCC COP 15’ to give its full snappy title). It is hoped an effective follow up to the Kyoto agreement will be mapped out.

This is just the latest in a long line of ‘last chance’ international shindigs that date back to the first UN conference on the environment in Stockholm in 1972. There are signs of heavy political weather ahead. Despite his best efforts Obama is finding it tough turning the political and public mood on the topic, and Indian and Chinese negotiators aren’t going to make it easy to bind the big emitters of the developing world into mitigation (mainly carbon reduction) commitments.

I hope for dramatic and far-reaching agreement, but to be honest I don’t expect it. For that reason I feel it is a political and communications mistake to load too much emphasis on one meeting, or indeed on the idea of there being one international political solution. This is not the same as saying that individual or community responses are the way to go instead. The town of Modbury’s banning of plastic bags is inspirational, and the world’s first ‘carbon free’ village pub ditto, but in the face of the immense task of transforming the global political economy of energy a lot of small actions add up to… a lot of small actions.

Analysing what might be the most effective policies, and assessing what political work needs to be done to implement them is one of the most interesting areas to be working in as environmental social scientist.

I’ve always assumed that my own longstanding enthusiasm for a global carbon tax in place of the complex mechanisms associated with the Kyoto process must be naïve and wrongheaded. I tell myself that there must be really good reasons why so much political capital has been invested in such an unwieldy and complex set of policies when a really straightforward idea lies easily to hand. But in the last six months I’ve heard several people who are in a good position to know shrug their shoulders and acknowledge that a global carbon tax is the only really intuitive and fair way forward.

It would send the simplest and clearest message (£££) to the point where pollution happens. Those extra costs would be passed on to other businesses, government and consumers informing their decisions much more effectively than all of the climate communications efforts of the world put together. Efficiency investments would be rewarded with lower costs, and profligacy punished. The funds raised could be spent in three ways: to reduce other taxes (making this politically attractive amongst the world’s middle classes), to invest in green technologies (boosting the economy) and to pay for the costs of climate change adaptation (mostly to be felt in the developing world in the medium term).

Yes we should all ask our politicians to push things as far and as fast as is possible at Copenhagen, but if the talks fall flat lets be ready to have bold thoughts about other approaches to cutting the risks of dangerous climate change.


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