Kopenhagen is over and with this a new Chapter of climate policy begins. There was ia lot of "green wash" at this climate conference, a lot of wonderful speeches and green promises. But the accord signed by the participants is not even useful as a figleaf. What is clear that the Kyoto era of climate policy has ended, defined by the attempt to get collective action going, by a global framework for carbon trading and legally binding agreements to cut CO 2 emissions. All of these elements have fallen to the way side. Nobody This is especially hard to swallow for parties and governments of the centre left, who are strong believers in the virtue of a multilateral, UN - driven approach. But the dream of a multilateral agreement is over. Nationstates are in the driving seat, as the outcome of Kopenhagen suggests. The lessons of Kopenhagen: the result demonstrates, that a gathering of 190 or so nations is unwieldy and impractical. Furthermore: the bitter truth is, that none of the signatory states managed to produce the promised Cuts in CO 2 emissions. One could even argue, that Kopenhagen signals a welcome return to more realism - governments have recognized the futility of trying to achieve what nobody can fulfil anyhow.
We know there will be no legally binding agreements. Furthermore, even if there were legally binding agreements, who would police these and would take actions against failing states? The inconvenien Truth is, that all major players not to be seen as the culprit who will be blamed for the failure of Kopenhagen. Everybody made announcements, promising to cut greenhouse gas emissions, Europe, the United States as well as China and India. But if one looks a the small print, these commitments turn out to be either minimal or, in the case of China and India, they mean in fact rising CO 2 emissions in the next decade or so.
Another lesson was the complete failure of the EU strategy. We will set an example, go for binding cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and the world will follow - clearly a naive approach, reminiscent of other unilateral intentions in the past, nearly always promotede by the left. .
This approach was especially misguided in the wake of financial and economic crisis. A climate unilateralism is untenable, it would mean a dramatic financial transfer from the west to the advantage of our competitors China and India, our economies can ill afford and our populations won't accept. Public opinion in Europe and America, according to latest research, is hardening anyhow. They don*t believe the climate hype and they are dead against any financial transfers.
Targets and Realism
As far as the ambitious targets for emission cuts or renewalbles of the UK and other EU states are concerned, Professor Roger Pielke Jr. is right when he points out that setting "unachievable targets is not a policy, it is an act of wishful thinking". He calls it "a politics of symbolism with no impact on real world outcomes." Pielke adds that the focus on "magical solutions" is leaving little room for the practical.
Leading business figures agree with this damning verdict. The CEO of Eon, Bernotat, said that the British politicians need "to stop misleading the public about what is achievable." He is scathing about the target of 30% electricity coming from renewables in 2020 and refers particularly to the plan to build 33 gigawatts of off shore wind power up from the present 0.6 gigawatt, a plan he calls naïve and unachievable. Similar the position of BP, very much interested in getting their hands on subsidies, whatever the value of wind energy and therefore not driven, as an outdated, but still widely used arguments of journalists, environmentalist and green politicians insinuates, by the wish to preserve there core business of oil.
There are too many illusions propagated and circling around alternative and renewable technologies: about their promise and potential, about the time frame, in which they can be introduced and changes be realized, about the jobs, that a new green Keynisanism can create and about the political impact of a radical green policy.
The arguments against the extensive use of wind are well known. Wind is intermittent and needs conventional backup, the electricity it delivers is extremely expensive, feasible only with high subsidies. It won't even deliver the promise of jobs: Wind turbines can and will be more cheaply built in China, the same goes for solar panels, as Germany recently found out. In the UK, the closure of the turbine factory on the Isle of Wight was another example of the same trend.
This does not stop business to be keen on wind power. It is attracted by huge subsidies, offered by governments, driven by "the pressure of fashionable, green ideology", as James Lovelock writes in his latest book "The vanishing face of Gaia". Lovelocks judgement could not be clearer: "Europe's massive use of wind as a supplement to baseload electricity will be remembered as one of the great follies of the twenty first century".
The new age of carbon
What ever happens, if the folly is continued or not, the next twenty years could be called "the new age of carbon." To demonstrate the unreality that rules the worlds of targets: If the UK really intends to cut CO 2 emissions by 34% till 2022, the UK would need to build in the next 6 years the equivalent of 30 new nuclear power stations. The telling comment of the (Labour) chairman of the "Climate Change Committee" of the House of Commons: "Well beyond our political capacity to deliver".
We should face reality: In the next twenty years more oil, gas and coal will be burned than ever before - and carbon dioxide emissions will continue to rise. We are entering what couls be called the new carbon age. Renewables can't and won't deliver the scale of energy needed for a rising world population. For the time being only fossil fuels and nuclear power will be able to deliver the necessary energy. In the light of these facts it is especially sad that Britain and Germany, once leading nations in nuclear technology, have either neglected or given up on it completely and left the field to other, more farsighted nations like the French. 30 years ago Britain had 15 000 nuclear engineers, now the figure is just a tenth of that. Germany decided an atomic exit strategy which at least will be reverted now. But precious time has been lost.
We can call ourselves lucky that we have gained a bit of breathing space. The global warming trend has stopped, for the time being at least. Since 1998 global average temperatures have not risen. In fact, there has even been a slight fall - despite the fact that CO2 emissions have been rising relentlessly during this period, and in spite of the "binding" agreements in Kyoto to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
The climate modellers of the IPCC did not foresee the halt in global warming. Professor Mojib Latif, one of the leading IPCC scientists, admitted recently this inconvenient truth during a climate conference in Geneva and talked about "one or two decades more of cooling", before he expects the recommencement and continuation of the global warming trend.
One thing is clear. The belief in the accuracy of computer models has suffered. The science is not settled, as many climate researchers claimed in the past few years, a claim which goes against the essence of science and research and should never have been made in the first place. Furthermore, the affair of the leaked e mails has served a devasting to climate science, because its credibility and integrity has been shattered. .
We are faced with an awkward position. Nobody seems to know what the future holds; even if we are prepared to follow the lead of the IPCC, we are faced with huge, quite often irreconcilable differences of opinion. One school of thought predicts catastrophe, if not apocalypse, another forecasts at least a massive challenge to our usual way of life while other models of the future seem to suggest a manageable degree of warming. Some sceptics, among them an astonishingly high number of scientists, go so far to suggest that we all will, in a few years time, wake up to the fact, that global warming was just another one of the many unfounded scares which modern mass media societies are prone to fall for.
What to do? Yes, we need more energy efficiency, we need to decarbonise our industries, we need to diversify our sources of energy as much as possible and we need new, clean technologies. We should start building nuclear power stations, at the moment the only effective way of producing carbon free electricity. At the same time we should avoid damaging our western economies, either by transferring too much money to our competitors or falling into the trap of the "green-industrial complex," about whose malign influence even James Lovelock, the founder of the Gaia theory, of earth and biosphere being a self-regulating super-organism, and convinced that it is too late to stop 'global heating,' is scathing.
We should in future be more sceptical of computer-based predictions of climate change and focus more on observing what is actually happening in reality: Is there any sign that the rise of global temperature or the sea level is accelerating, for instance. We need to prepare for adaptation and on top of it all we need an insurance policy in form of geo-engineering, in case the worst predictions should come true. Some of the technologies to cool down the planet by for instance mimicking volcanoes or by creating more cloud cover blocking out the sun are already available; geo-engineering might prove to be a significantly cheaper solution than the desperate, expensie and not vera successful attempt to mitigate climate change, by cutting emissions and creating economic hardship for billions of people.
Progressives of the centre left are in a difficult position. Historically the purpose of Socialdemocratic parties was to increase the life chances of the many, to create a better life for the majority of their nations. Combined with this was the conviction that scientific and technological progress would help to achieve a better world for the masses. Nuclear power was until the sixties not seen as dangerous but as a tool to create a better future.
In the last three decades socialdemocrats lost, to quite an extent, confidence and believe in scientific progress, partly due to the growing influence of a combination of greenish - leftish ideas, which proved to be attractive to many activists of Labour and Socialdemocratic parties since the seventies. In many Europea countries alliances were formed with green parties and the centre left accepted their sceptical, if not outright hostile attitudes towards nuclear power. Out of this grew the conviction among centre left politians, faced with the problem of declining electoral fortunes of their parties in most European countries, that green policies will be the way forward.
Centre left politicians in Britain and Germany, the new leader of the German social democrats, Sigmar Gabriel and the Labour Ministers David and Ed Miliband, seem seriously to believe that climate change is the new mass mobilizing topic of our time and will help saving their parties too. This could prove to be an error of judgment. Such a strategy seems to drive away voters fearful of loosing the lifestyle of mobility, warmth and comfort. A more likely outcome is that this strategy will neither save the centre left nor will it help to save the planet. Recent political developments underline this progressive dilemma. President Obamas chances to get a cap and trade climate bill through the senate have always been small. Now they have declined even further, due to doubts about the integrity of some of the climate scientist working for the IPCC, Kevins Rudds government failed with its climate bill in the Senate, were Conservatives and Greens voted against cap and trade. The unexpected win of the Conservatives in a by election a few days later could signal further trouble. After another parliamentary defeat for the climate bill of the Rudd administration a general election needs to be called; it would be the first "Climate policy election" in a major democracy and it might provide further ammunition for the argument that Socialdemocrats will pay a price if they embrace a radical green climate policies.
Jürgen Krönig writes for the German weekly, Die Zeit.
BACK TO MAIN PAGE