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OPINION: Take climate negotiations to the highest level

Two weeks on the beach in Cancun ought to be enough to banish winter blues – but is unlikely to next week for Connie Hedegaard and the other EU climate negotiators. Never mind that there probably won’t be time for them to feel the sand between their toes. The real problem is that the mood in Cancun is likely to be downbeat, not raising spirits but rather the reverse.

Connie Hedegaard will be tempted to leave the swimming costume at home and pack the valium instead. The EU did not distinguish itself in Copenhagen last year, and has not made much progress since. Astonishingly, a planned policy paper on climate change and development, promised in time for Cancun, has allegedly had to be abandoned, because the Member States could not agree. Perhaps Connie should pack the swimming costume after all. Otherwise, as Aneurin Bevan, the British politician once warned, she may find herself naked in the conference room.

Other blocs and countries are in much the same position. The US is probably in a worse position after the Republican gains in the mid-term elections. Certainly, the G20, meeting the other day in Seoul, made appropriate noises but signalled no breakthroughs. Gridlock looks to be the most likely outcome in Cancun.

There is an alternative. Actually, there are three. The first, minimum option is pragmatic: hoover up the small agreements that can be made in Cancun, declare that progress has been made, and withdraw to gather strength for next year’s meeting in South Africa. This would help to rebuild the credibility of the UN process on climate change. The small agreements are likely to include consensus on a long-term target of limiting warming to 2C, carried over from the Copenhagen Accord, a decision on setting up a new Green Fund, and a raft of infrastructural arrangements covering reporting and funding frameworks for adaptation and, especially, forestry. Nobody involved will consider any of this a breakthrough, but sometimes it is wise to take what one can and husband resources for another day.

The second option is to pull out all the stops and aim for a more ambitious agreement in Cancun. This would have to include agreement on emissions reductions for a post-Kyoto framework and decisions on how to raise the $US 100bn a year in ‘new and additional’ climate funding promised for 2020, and firm arrangements for monitoring, reporting and verification. Despite background work completed by the Advisory Group on Climate Financing and others, none of this is politically feasible this year. Ministers, like Chris Huhne in the UK, have admitted as much.

The third option is more ambitious and higher risk. It is to mobilise EU leaders around a strategy which highlights the urgency, articulates a commitment, and sets in process a high-level political process. This cannot yield results as quickly as Cancun, but can make real progress inevitable in South Africa next year. A new strategy needs to be put in place quickly, by conference call if necessary, so that Connie Hedegaard can pull a rabbit out of the hat in Cancun, and jolt the world into a new approach.

Making the case for urgency is easy. Climate scientists are increasingly sceptical that the iconic 2C is attainable. Just this week, the University of Exeter reported that carbon emissions barely fell last year, despite the recession, and may rise by as much as 3% in 2010. This rate of increase is comparable to the high levels seen from 2000 to 2008. It demonstrates a trend precisely the opposite of the one identified as needed by the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change.

Articulating a commitment is also relatively straightforward. The EU already has a relatively ambitious set of targets – to cut carbon emissions by 20% by 2020, with energy consumption cut by 20% through energy efficiency, and 20% of energy from renewables. It has already offered a 30% cut if others will make similar commitments. It has contributed to fast-start finance, not quite to the level promised, but not far off. And it has recognised the benefits to our own economies. As Connie Hedegaard herself remarked at a speech hosted by IIED in the summer, ‘the consequence of the crisis has been that we have not invested as much in innovation in green technologies as we foresaw . . while everybody knows that, due to the crisis, the need for innovation in Europe has definitely not been less’.

The third step is the hard one. With some EU economies in crisis and others facing unprecedented fiscal retrenchment, the auguries are not favourable for new, large-scale financial contributions. Further, there is little appetite in certain quarters for EU engagement in multilateral initiatives, with some writing of a ‘zero-sum world’ and others of ‘Europe’s Decline and Fall’. In the field of climate change, particularly, national interests are powerful, for example with respect to protecting coal.

Nevertheless, few leaders would deny that climate change represents an existential threat to humankind. And all would recognise that tackling the challenge is a matter of politics not technical analysis. That is why leaders themselves need to engage. Climate change is too important to be left to environment ministers, or even to foreign ministers. Only leaders can lead – and not for a couple of days, as in Copenhagen, but over the long haul.

This, then, is the rabbit Connie Hedegaard should pull out of the hat in Cancun. An EU leaders’ group prepared to put in the time and muster the resources it will take to broker a global deal in South Africa next year. Herman van Rompuy should lead. He is President of the Council, but also famed as a negotiator and deal-maker. At least one of next year’s Presidencies should work with him, Hungary or Poland. The President of the Parliament or a senior representative should join the group. And Connie Hedegaard should represent the Commission.

The objective of this Leaders’ Group is clear: to deliver a global deal on climate change in South Africa next year. The Leaders’ work will be about listening and building partnerships, but above all about delivery. It will take a substantial time commitment, and needs to feature prominently in private discussions next year in the Council, the Commission and the Parliament. If it works, it will help save the world and also give Europe a purpose. If it doesn’t work, at least Europe will be able to say it has done everything it could.

Is Herman van Rompuy ready to lead? If he can pull this off, he will certainly earn a fortnight on the beach.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in The Broker.

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