Climate of confusion

I'm writing this column in a Copenhagen café (good coffee here, and at £4 a cup you don't drink too much of it) on Monday, with five days of negotiations at the climate change summit stretching out ahead. By the time you read this, it will almost all be over. World leaders will have come and gone. We'll be waiting for the final declaration, if there is one. But right now, that feels like a lifetime away.

I'm right here in the centre of things and I've been paying as much attention as possible, yet I've got no idea how the week is going to end. I'm not the only one - everyone I speak to is exhausted and confused as the madness sets in and everyone stops sleeping. One comrade in arms said unhappily yesterday: "It's going to be a crap deal. And it's going to snow. And I want to go home."

Yesterday (Sunday is not a day of rest at the summit) the youth delegations had an eight-hour strategy meeting. Eight hours! This morning no one could get into the Bella Centre, where the summit is taking place. Outside, huge queues of NGOs stood like robots with the plug pulled out, waiting for someone to tell them what to do. Activists spill in and out of prison as the Danish police arrest seemingly at will. Journalists are told three different conspiracy theories about the final draft within two hours, all completely contradictory. The Alternative People's Summit discusses wonderful, equitable solutions that will never make it anywhere near the UN table. Negotiators cry or lose their temper. The Free Hugs campaign is cleaning up.

And through it all, you have the sense of constantly chasing the facts, fighting your way through blizzards of leaflets and briefings and newspaper reports, trying to see the clear outline of what is happening here. We all know that there's going to be no final deal, just the outlines of one that will be hammered into proper shape after the conference is over. But whether there will be more walkouts, whether the developing nations will end the week feeling that they've been completely shafted, or whether some sort of genuine consensus can actually emerge - the mood changes from minute to minute.

The saddest thing of all is that here we are, with the chance for countries from every part of the world to come together and act with firm and convincing leadership. UN conferences are conducted differently from World Trade Organisation fortress-a-likes; for the first week at least, NGOs and campaigners mingled with the delegates and attended meetings, and there was a real spirit of excitement and co-operation. But a weekend during which the Danish police took the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights and smashed it over their knees, arresting more than 1,200 demonstrators during three days of almost entirely peaceful protests, exposed the great weakness in any hope that a deal can come out of all this craziness.

Somewhere the ideal agreement exists, just as, floating above us all, is the unreachable Declaration of Human Rights. But right now we are operating in a fog of war down here. Pretty much the only certainty we can rely on is that the usual frailty will surely prevail.

This article first appeared in the 21 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.