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Author: Joe Smith

After Kyoto

Updated Thursday, 27th August 2009

The Open University's Joe Smith sets the scene, in the run up to the Copenhagen climate talks.

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It’s the season for an overstretched seaside metaphor: with around three months to go I’m beginning to sense a gathering swell of interest in the Copenhagen climate talks later this year. We’ll all be hearing plenty more about ‘COP 15’ (the Fifteenth Conference of the Parties in the UN climate policy negotiations) in the weeks to come. Tempting to bring in plenty more storm (teacup?) surf (opportunity?) and shipping analogies but I’ll resist. Enough now just to note down a few thoughts about what I anticipate about the conference and its significance. I’ll be going as a member of an OU team that will be working to make sense of the event and to analyse and communicate day by day.

The Climate Change Conference meets in Kyoto, Japan, 1-10 December 1997
The 1997 Kyoto Climate Change Conference

COP 15 is going to have some people crying from the rooftops that this meeting decides the fate of all humanity and others sniping about another pointless UN junket. The truth is that this meeting does matter - a great deal - but it needs to be put in perspective. This is a significant moment in the development of an international political process that started in the early 1990s, and is set to go on for many years into the future. The Copenhagen meeting aims to set the next bundle of targets, timetables and mechanisms when those outlined in the Kyoto deal of 1997 run their course in 2012.

Many things are different this time around. International climate politics is more complex but also more mature. It is no longer simply a matter of the rich North admitting 'mea culpa' and obsessing about mitigating their own emissions and funnelling some 'clean tech' cash to the developing world. The booming manufacturers and sprouting middle classes of the developing world giants of India and China have made them major CO2 polluters. Political leaders and publics in the South are also much more aware of the potentially huge consequences of climate change for their societies.

Things have moved on in the North too. Levels of awareness of the science have increased, but along with this an awareness of the awkward questions raised by it (wind farms and more nuclear waste in your backyard? Higher electricity and fuel bills?). These changes and challenges North and South are neatly summarised in the shifting US and Chinese positions. The financial crash is significant too: it has revived a sense that the state has both responsibility for and can have some power over the economy and it has breathed life into phrases like 'green new deal'. Hence these talks are going on in the context of a much more cautious and critical view of unfettered markets.

But with climate change going up the public agenda around the world government ministers are now working in the full glare of media attention. The media want conflict, event and personality, and in looking for these they can distort the (dull but important) work of international policy development. Bluntly, the talks are about who cuts emissions by how much and when. Every move has consequences and it’s no longer enough to talk glibly about 'low hanging fruit' of easy emissions cuts. To meet climate change with the kind of energy and imagination that will be required will need us to rethink and rewire almost every aspect of contemporary life. The 24/7 short attention span world of the media may not allow much political space for this.

Nevertheless we are helped by the fact that plenty of new people have joined the climate change story since the talks that produced the Kyoto Protocol in the 1990s. Lord Stern is one of them. This respected economist was commissioned by Gordon Brown and Tony Blair to lay out the options for a mainstream western government. Stern found that early action to cut emissions and avoid warming ends up much cheaper than delaying action and paying big bills later to cope with the effects of climate change. And cutting emissions later is also tougher.

So the arguments have been piling up in favour of a robust deal this year. But we shouldn't raise expectations too high: as one wise head noted how people always overestimate what they can do in a year and underestimate what they can do in a decade. Also, focusing on the international politics can distract us from the fact that there are many other creative and determined responses to environmental change in play. On that note, my next post will be about a new Open University project - Creative Climate - that will work to capture the human story of environmental change from 2010 to 2020. We’ll be hoping that plenty of people in the OU community – students, associates, staff – will contribute to that work. More on that soon.


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