Start the world, we want to get on

The Copenhagen debacle gave little grounds for hope of concerted action against climate change, but

The climate-change meetings in Copenhagen proved something of a fiasco. The global nature of those December talks, with representatives attending from 192 countries - including many heads of state - certainly indicated that the world is taking climate change seriously. Yet the bickering that occurred between nations and groups of nations undermined the idea that humanity is coming together to take a stand against its risks. The Copenhagen Accord, the only tangible result of the 12-day event, is a slim document, put together by a handful of countries, to which states will sign up in a voluntary way.

Nations deciding to commit to the accord were supposed to have set out plans for reducing their greenhouse-gas emissions by 31 January. That deadline has since been "softened". A number of countries have submitted their promises for cutting carbon emissions, but these are generally seen as inadequate. At a meeting in New Delhi on 24 January, four of the five originators of the document (China, India, Brazil and South Africa) announced their intention to continue to support it, but only on condition that it will never become a treaty - that is, have binding force in international law. The current position of the United States, the other country that created the accord, is murky, as the proposed US climate change bill has not been endorsed by Congress and perhaps never will be, given the domestic difficulties President Obama faces.

So, will the accord lead to real action on a scale commensurate with the huge task involved? Obviously, it could founder. We shall have to wait and see, but I think it is a new beginning of potential importance. I was never much in fav­our of the Kyoto/Copenhagen-style approach, which was too slow-moving and bureaucratic to make the impact needed. If the accord does progress, it will be driven by a smaller group of countries. But that group is likely to include all the big polluters and, just as important, will probably cross-cut the divide between developed and developing countries, the prime source of acrimony at Copenhagen.

The accord therefore could provide a linchpin for emissions reductions, but we have to think and act on a broader scale, too. Copenhagen was not a singular event: its failure expresses deep-seated problems of global governance. We live in a far more interdependent world than any previous generation, and climate change is the negative expression of that interdependence. Yet the institutions of transnational governance have not advanced in tandem. The UN is regularly paralysed by the very divisions that sank the hopes entertained at Copenhagen.

I cut, you cut

Here are some of the points and problems that governments and other agencies should be thinking about and acting upon, whatever happens to the accord.

First, the various groups of countries should work with each other informally to make pro­gress in cutting emissions. Sixteen countries account for well over 80 per cent of total world emissions and they should be meeting in a regular way. That it was George W Bush who originally made this proposal shouldn't put us off what is a necessary idea post-Copenhagen.

Second, a G2 - the US and China working together (see box) - is an essential part of global policy, as these two nations alone contribute such a high proportion of emissions. It isn't likely to be an easy relationship, but the rest of the world has a stake in its effectiveness and should encourage such collaboration. There should also be a climate-change G3, involving the European Union. The EU was sidelined at Copenhagen when the accord was drawn up - a terrible rejection for an organisation that aspires to world leadership in this area. One chief reason was the usual difficulty - that the EU does not speak with one voice. A single person should represent the Union at future climate-change negotiations: either the new high representative for foreign affairs, Cathy Ashton, or someone specifically appointed for the task.

Third, close connections need to be drawn between emerging regulation of the world financial system and world climate-change policy. The G20, whose emergence is one of the most positive aspects of recent developments in global governance, is the obvious forum for exploring such overlaps. A transnational tax on financial transactions no longer looks as implausible as it did even a couple of years ago; in the medium term it could supply the means to help the poorer countries cope with climate change. The accord promises a fund for this purpose, building up to £100bn a year. If it is forthcoming, we will need to find ways to monitor how it is spent, because its sole purpose will be to help developing countries either to reduce their emissions or to adapt to the consequences of climate change. The existing conduit for channelling money to poorer countries, the Clean Development Mechanism, has made little impact in either respect.

The UN's role

Federal policy on climate change in the United States will now be weak at best. Yet the US is a diverse society, and other groups can help fill the void. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California has proposed that cities, states, provinces and regions work together to meet the challenge. The R20 group he established in 2009 has had considerable success in getting such groups to sign the pledge to reduce emissions by at least 20 per cent below those of 2005 by 2020. Activism at the sub-national level will play a vital role across the world, and some means should be found of giving NGOs a formal position in climate-change bargaining.

Finally, we must rethink the role of the United Nations. The UN's core weaknesses were laid bare in Copenhagen. Proceeding by full consensus simply isn't possible with issues where there are abiding differences of interest between countries. Most of the real action will now happen elsewhere. Yet, weak though it is at making decisions, the UN is in some respects irreplaceable. Whatever comes from the accord can't be left to the participating countries to monitor. We need a global regime, for example, to assess states' emissions and to track their progress. The logical home for any agency set up to carry out such work is the UN. Its participation is the best guarantee of impartiality.

The Copenhagen debacle could lead to a period of quiescence in which not much is done to pursue climate-change policy. But I don't think this is what will happen. We stand on the verge of profound change. The social and economic system created by the fusion of political and industrial revolution in Europe and North America, now becoming globalised, is starting to subvert itself. The dangers posed by climate change are the most far-reaching expressions of this, but we face much broader issues of sustainability. Whatever happens with formal agreements, we can anticipate a burst of innovation - economic, social, political and technological - over the coming decade and beyond.

Anthony Giddens is a Labour peer and the author of "The Politics of Climate Change" (Polity Press, £12.99)