REUTERS | Arnd Wiegmann

Copenhagen: the last chance saloon

As I write this post, there are less than 33 days until the UN-sponsored Copenhagen climate change conference begins, where world leaders will meet to thrash out a successor to the Kyoto protocol. Gordon Brown recently described the conference as the last chance to set the course for a reduction in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions for the next 50 years:

“If we do not reach a deal this time, let us be in no doubt – once the damage from unchecked emissions is done, no retrospective global agreement in some future period can undo that.”

With buildings accounting for approximately 44% of our CO2 emissions, any agreement in Copenhagen should encourage ambitious targets for reducing CO2 emissions in the built environment. The construction industry, along with other carbon-intensive sectors, will need to respond to any requirements that Copenhagen may demand.

Uncertainty in the construction industry

Currently, it can be difficult for those in the industry to ascertain their obligations to build new structures more sustainably and reduce CO2 emissions in existing stock. This is because there are various pieces of legislation that are relevant to these issues, and these seem to be constantly changing as practices and technologies develop. Examples of legislation recently put in place, or currently under review, include:

  • The Climate Change Act 2008, which sets out the world’s first binding legal framework for tackling climate change, including an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
  • The UK Low Carbon Transition Plan, the white paper outlining the Government’s plan for making the UK a low carbon economy and meeting the targets set out in the Climate Change Act;
  • The Building Regulations. Part F (means of ventilation) and Part L (conservation of fuel and power) are to be amended and the Government’s consultation on this closed on 17 September 2009. Despite the requirement for an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, the proposed rule obliging owners of existing buildings to spend a further 10% to improve energy efficiency when carrying out refurbishment was controversially dropped from the amendments.

What will Copenhagen achieve?

An optimistic view is that the Copenhagen conference will provide the basis for real and cohesive targets to reduce CO2 emissions across various industries in each country and be the catalyst for amalgamating existing UK legislation into something more comprehensible and concrete.

However, the political posturing and electioneering apparent in the countdown to Copenhagen does not bode well, with pessimism growing as to whether any meaningful agreement can be reached at all.

Does it all boil down to money?

Inevitably, a major sticking point is money. Emerging economies such as China (which recently overtook the US as the largest producer of CO2 emissions) and India, understandably, do not want to be denied the ability to develop and grow their economies. Such countries are heavily reliant on carbon intensive industries, manufacturing products (cheaply) for consumption by richer countries. China and India want any deal in Copenhagen to put the onus on the consumer countries to take responsibility for the CO2 emissions generated in manufacturing products, rather than on the countries exporting them.

Both China and India have called for richer countries to contribute 1% of their GDP to help them cope with the demands of reducing  CO2 emissions but, inevitably, the recession has made these countries reluctant to hand over money. Last Friday (30 October 2009), members of the EU agreed that €100 billion per year is needed by 2020 for those countries with emerging economies to adapt their industries to be less carbon intensive, with €50 billion of this coming from public funds and the rest from private contributions, carbon taxes and trading. What was not made clear was how much the EU (and each member state) would contribute or how each country’s contribution to the pot will be calculated. Details, details!

A toothless tiger?

In my (pessimistic) view, there is a real risk that any deal reached in Copenhagen will be a toothless tiger, with very few binding commitments to reduce CO2 emissions. If so, the Copenhagen conference will not achieve a cohesive and comprehensive code that significantly reduces future CO2 emissions. Instead, the current practice of legislating in a piecemeal way to encourage CO2 reductions will, unfortunately, continue.

But, as Copenhagen is likely to be the last chance saloon, I hope I am wrong.

2 thoughts on “Copenhagen: the last chance saloon

  1. Gareth’s pessimism has been echoed by UK Climate Secretary, Ed Miliband. The BBC reports that Ed Miliband has played down hopes of a binding agreement, predicting that only a political deal is likely. This echoes the views of other high profile figures over the last few weeks. For example, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently said that achieving an international binding climate change agreement in Copenhagen is highly unlikely.

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