The Energy Secretary Ed Davey says world governments are facing a "pivotal moment" on dealing with climate change. Photo: Getty
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Why a climate change agreement next year could be global diplomacy's last stand

With the golden age of international diplomacy behind us, the UK government has today published its thoughts on why a global deal on climate change is going to happen and is in our interest.

A new joint report from Green Alliance, WWF, Christian Aid, RSPB and Greenpeace believes we will have a global agreement on tackling climate change by the end of next year. If we do, it will be an exceptional event. Nations working together is no longer the fashionable way to deal with  problems. The UN is looked upon as indecisive, the EU is seen as technocratic  and even the United Kingdom is barely living up to its name.

There has been some hesitancy from both sides of the political spectrum towards the prospect of the 2015 deal. Earlier in the year, the Fabian society produced a pamphlet calling for “a much greater focus on rebuilding democratic capacity rather than focusing on securing legislative change at a national and supranational level.”

Meanwhile, potential Conservative mayoral candidate Michael Liebreich has written in detail why he thinks past global deals have been a case of the perfect being the enemy of the good. He believes an agreement will be made next year but, for him, it is a distraction from the bottom-up innovations already going on in the private sector.

There’s a lot to agree with in this argument, particularly not seeing the negotiations as a “one-off game” dictated by a central authority. It is true that decarbonisation doesn’t happen in rented soccer stadiums or badly lit conference centres, but on the ground, driven by investment in low carbon instead of high carbon.

However, these very real and exciting innovations in technology and financing are not separate from the international process but a part of it. It has been a virtuous circle: the technological deployment is accelerated by greater international co-operation and, in turn, the technological deployment makes a stronger agreement more likely. And so achieving a good deal matters, because, not despite of, the action we’ve seen on the ground. Through the frustration, we’ve learned pragmatism and possibility from past climate conferences and have a greater understanding of how top level action links to what actually happens on the ground. 

Thankfully, that does still seem to be the attitude of the UK government which has today published its own thoughts on why it thinks a global deal will happen and why it is in the UK’s interest.

Meanwhile, as is clear to everyone involved now, the US and Chinese administrations are in the most ambitious place they’ve ever been and are determined to deliver something in the Paris talks in just over a year's time. Just as it seems the golden age of international diplomacy may be behind us, climate change may show the world it's still possible for us to work together. 

But not just any agreement will do. We need more than a piece of paper and a nice photo op by the Eiffel Tower. To bring about real change, an agreement has to do several things, from linking climate action with developing the world’s poorest economies to dealing with deforestation, and our report is clear how they can be achieved. However, there are two essential  elements worth highlighting that will help countries of the world to act together for the long term.

First, governments and businesses need to trust that countries will deliver on the promises made in the agreement, which means it must have a clear legal basis that works for different national constitutions.

Second, nations need to agree to a long term goal for 2050. Which means ensuring the agreement enables ambitions to be ramped up in the future, ambition ready to be lifted every five years. This is because carbon targets will need to be revised as the science gets clearer; and, as confidence in the agreement grows, and countries implement low carbon strategies, there will be more evidence of the social and economic benefits of action and greater confidence amongst investors.

We need our political leaders to show us they are still capable of acting beyond their own borders and tackling the big issues. On 23 September, they will meet in New York to discuss the climate change negotiations being held in Paris next year. Whether as citizens or investors, we all have good reasons to care about the outcome.

With an agreement in place, everyone has a mandate to act and the virtuous circle can speed up, with both the bottom-up and the top-down processes pulling each other along further and faster towards real progress on tackling climate change.


Alastair Harper is Head of Politics for Green Alliance UK

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Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.