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14 December 2009

Exclusive: my interview with Douglas Alexander on climate change

The International Development Secretary's update from Copenhagen

By Mehdi Hasan

I caught up with Douglas Alexander over the phone this afternoon for an update on the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen. The International Development Secretary has been in the city to attend bilateral meetings on climate financing.

Here are the highlights:

“There is no certainty that we will get a deal. We can get a deal, but it is far from certain.”

“America has lost almost a decade under President Bush.”

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“Demonstrations need to be law-abiding and orderly.”

“The scientific evidence on this [climate change] is like gravity. It’s real.”

“There is more work to be done before we can agree a text. Leaders have a vital role to play in landing that final agreement.”

“We do recognise that developed counties do bear a heavy burden of responsibility.”

The full transcript of the interview is below:


Mehdi Hasan: What’s the mood in Copenhagen?


Douglas Alexander: These are the most complex negotiations, intentionally, that have ever been attempted. There are more than 192 countries represented here. There is no certainty that we will get a deal. We can get a deal, but it is far from certain. And the real challenge is that, in the hours and days ahead, the negotiations catch up with the science.


MH: Are we making progress?


DA: We have a range of offers put on the table in recent days from a range of different countries, including China, India, the United States and the European Union. But there is a long way to go. We had a walkout by the African delegation this afternoon which temporarily suspended the negotiations before they returned to the conference chamber. But that should remind us all of the very real risks of failure . . . in the days ahead.


MH: Was it legitimate for the African delegation to walk out?


DA: I wasn’t in the discussions that precipitated the walkout. My understanding is that it was about procedural issues. My fear is that every hour lost to negotiations is an extra hour further away from the solution. I mean, if we get the right deal, it could be more important to Africa than even the Gleneagles deal in 2005. So I think our common responsibility now is not to be identifying problems but to be searching for solutions. And we need all countries around the negotiating table at all times, if we are committed to making the progress that we need to make.


MH: On emissions cuts, is it all going to be put off for six years, as some newspapers are reporting today?


DA: There are negotiations under way at the moment but we want to see an agreement here in Copenhagen that is ambitious, effective and fair. We want to see real emissions cuts quickly from the developed world, and a movement away from business as usual from the large, developing countries. We are constrained by the science . . . We need to raise the level of ambition around the negotiations, both on emissions reduction and on climate finance, between now and the weekend.


MH: The United States under President Obama has offered to cut US emissions by 4 per cent on 1990 levels by 2020, subject to approval by the US Congress. That’s not exactly “change we can believe in”, is it, from the world’s biggest per-capita polluter?


DA: Our sense is that the United States wants to be a deal-maker and not a deal-breaker here in Copenhagen. There has been a fundamental change in the approach of the US government with the change in administration. But it is also right to acknowledge that America has lost almost a decade under President Bush. And therefore we hope that all countries around the table will be able to raise their level of ambition in the days between now and the weekend.


MH: Has there been any movement on the EU climate aid pledge of £6.5bn over three years?


DA: That was the agreement at the European Council at the weekend. That is for what is called “fast-start” . . . or money between now and 2013. We would also like to see progress, obviously, in relation to the post-Copenhagen framework . . . that’s from the year 2013 onwards. There are discussions taking place in the next 24 hours between Prime Minister Meles and President Sarkozy in France and with Prime Minister Brown in London, before they all travel here to Copenhagen. So again, our hope would be that, in terms of climate financing, we can see the level of ambition raised around the table in the days ahead.


MH: You want to see that number go up, obviously?


DA: The number that was identified at the European Council, as I say, was for “fast start” . . .


MH: But what do you say to those African negotiators who’ve accused people like you, Ed Miliband, the Danes, etc as acting like “climate sceptics”? That’s a pretty damning criticism, isn’t it?


DA: Well, the last direct conversation that I had with a representative of the African Union was with Prime Minister Meles of Ethiopia. He recognised that fast-start funding is a necessary but insufficient condition of the deal he wanted to see for Africa, and I share that view — that it is important to get money on the table. And it was Britain that led the way, both at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting and then again with the joint statement with Sarkozy at the European Council. But I recognise Africa wants to see longer-term, predictable financing and I share that ambition. A successful outcome is reliant not simply on the European Union, but on other developed countries as well. And that is why we are continuing to engage in such intensive negotiations in the hours ahead.


MH: What would you say to those climate activists who ask why Britain spent £850bn to save our banks, but is committing only £1.5bn over three years to help developing countries combat the biggest crisis in human history?


DA: Had action not been taken to stabilise the global financial system, the task of raising funds for climate finance, or tackling global poverty, would have been made harder, not easier. It is the case that Britain was the first country to try and move these negotiations from words to numbers when Gordon Brown put the number of $100bn per annum by 2020 on the table, as what he judged to be necessary for the adaptation and mitigation needs to be met. Now there are a range of figures that are being used by a range of different organisations in terms of the long-term financing needs, but it’s Britain that’s led the way in putting that number on the table, and I hope we can see progress towards it in the days ahead.


MH: Do you at least recognise the anger from activists over the discrepancy in the amount pledged to the financial crisis compared to the climate crisis?


DA: There is a difference between liability and commitments in terms of future expenditure, and we are working hard to get a return for the public on the money that was necessarily put into the banks at the time of the threat to the global financial system. But I recognise the desire of many people, not just activists, but the general public, for actions to deal with the needs of adaptation and mitigation. That’s why we’ve consistently argued from our initial statements at the Commonwealth Heads of Ggovernment Meeting and at the European Council for an ambitious and effective outcome. An ambitious and effective outcome involves significant extra financing being made available in the years ahead. That’s what we’re arguing around the Eurpean table. I’ve just concluded a meeting of European Council ministers, and there I’ve argued for both long-term financing and additionality, but also to ensure that it’s not just Europe that puts numbers on the table, but that we see other countries, and other groups of countries, making commitments as well.


MH: Is the money the UK is pledging all new money?


DA: We’ve said there needs to be additional financing available on top of the 0.7 per cent GNI pledge for overseas development. We have a rising aid budget in the years ahead, so the money we have announced will not in any way compromise our commitment to health, to education, to basic water and sanitation, the commitments we’ve already made. But talking to Prime Minister Meles, as I did last week, he was very clear that there needs to be additional financing as part of the post-Copenhagen framework and we share that ambition, and indeed the language that was agreed at the European Council of Ministers that I’ve just attended explicitly recognised the need for extra financing.


MH: The Swedes have acknowledged that the EU cash pledges include funds from existing budgets, haven’t they? That’s embarrassing, isn’t it?


DA: Well, I travelled to Bangladesh with James [Macintyre] in September and I saw for myself money that we’re spending out of our own aid budget to raise up the homesteads of Bangladeshis living on the chars . . . Undoubtedly that could be seen as being an adaptation to climate change, but it is undoubtedly a means of tackling extreme poverty in Bangladesh as well. That’s why we’ve said we will limit the contribution of our aid budget to climate financing. Sadly, that commitment, that only 10 per cent of our overseas development assistance can be counted towards climate financing . . . has not been matched by the principal opposition, by the Conservative Party in Britain. It is one of the very fundamental differences between Labour and the Conservatives on the issue of climate financing and development more generally.


MH: You and Ed Miliband told the New Statesman in September, while you were in Bangladesh, that the west accepts the “historic responsibility” of developed countries towards developing nations. So are we now seeing the west pay its “fair share” in climate aid?


DA: I believe the numbers on the table today are an opening contribution but, I hope, not the last word in these contributions. It is vital that all countries, including the European Union, recognise that as we enter the endgame of these negotiations we need to raise the level of our ambitions both on emissions and on climate finance. It’s a hugely complex challenge trying to land an agreement that is ambitious, fair and effective with this many countries around the table. But we do recognise that developed countries do bear a heavy burden of responsibility and we are pushing, both within the European Union and within these negotiations, for that responsibility to be recognised.


MH: Does it make sense to load everything into the final two days, when the world leaders arrive?


DA: No, which is why Ed Miliband, myself and Hilary Benn today are working to secure as much agreement ahead of the leaders arriving as we can. I do disagree with Jeffrey Sachs, who wrote recently that this should be the last politician-led negotiations. Because ultimately you do need the decision-makers in the room if you’re going to see the divides that exist at present being bridged. So I think there is a delicate balance to be struck between ensuring that as much work as possible is done ahead of the leaders arriving, and also that leaders arrive willing to exhibit leadership rather than simply brinkmanship.


MH: So do you agree with Jairam Ramesh of India that a draft text must be finalised before world leaders arrive on Thursday and Friday?


DA: Gordon Brown was the first head of state to announce he would be attending this conference and he is arriving tomorrow evening, on Tuesday. That is a tribute both to his own commitment but also to the interest that others have in Gordon being part of these negotiations. As I said, when I spoke to Prime Minister Meles of Ethiopia last week, he asked me in terms for Gordon’s active engagement. He said he hoped Gordon would play the same kind of leadership role that he played around Gleneagles in 2005. And in that sense, I welcome the fact that Gordon is travelling here early to these negotiations, not simply to bless a deal, but to attempt to seal a deal with other world leaders. But there is more work to be done before we can agree a text. Leaders have a vital role to play in landing that final agreement.


MH: What do you make of all the arrests? Do they tarnish the image of climate change activists? Or is it a result of heavy-handed and disproportionate policing by the Danes?


DA: I’m at one with Ed Miliband in saying that it’s important that people have the right to express their democratic voices and also their deep concerns about climate change, because we have a planet in peril. Of course, those demonstrations need to be law-abiding and orderly, but I hope not just people here in Denmark, but people around the world, will continue to raise their voices in the days ahead and demand from their leaders the level of ambition that we’re going to need if we’re going to secure an outcome on which literally the lives of many millions of people in the developing world depend.


MH: How bad do you think the University of East Anglia email affair has been? Did anyone mention it to you in Copenhagen?


DA: No one’s brought it up in the conversations that I have had. I think it will take more than a single email chain to really question the overwhelming scientific consensus that has built up over many years about the reality of climate change. As Development Secretary, I have seen in the developing world that climate change there is not a theory, is not a future threat: it is a contemporary crisis. And if you had, as I have, just met a minister from Mali who told me about the sinister advance of the desert in his country, you would not question the commitment of the ministers from developing countries arriving to express their concerns about the impact of climate change already. It was 150 years ago this year that the scientific discovery was made that CO2 holds heat in the atmosphere, and I am at one with Al Gore on this: the scientific evidence on this is like gravity. It’s real. It’s better that we focus on that reality than be distracted by a single chain of emails.


MH: So are climate sceptics playing with people’s lives?


DA: I think it is vital that we focus on the main prize in the days ahead: the main prize is an agreement here in Copenhagen that recognises we have a planet in peril. The scientific evidence for that is overwhelming and I and my colleagues in the British delegation will not be distracted from the task in the days ahead. I say that because I have seen it with my own eyes in India, in Kenya, in Ethiopia, in Bangladesh, all of which are dealing with the reality of climate change already and which deserve from politicians a laser-like focus in the days ahead in securing an agreement that works, not for one part of the world, but for every part of the world.


MH: Do you agree with Lord Stern when he says Copenhagen is “the most important gathering of people since the Second World War”? Or is it simply a staging post to the next set of negotiations?


DA: I had breakfast with Nick Stern this morning and he reiterated the importance of this agreement — and he was speaking both as an adviser to the hosts, the Danish government, and as an adviser to the African Union. I do think this is both the most important and the most complex set of negotiations that has been attempted by the international community for many decades. It reflects a planet in peril and it reflects that none of us have a more credible plan B than to see progress here in Copenhagen this week. That is why these negotiations are so important, and it is why we’re going to need leadership and not simply brinkmanship in the hours ahead.


MH: So there won’t be another Copenhagen-like event in the next year or two?


DA: I am not anticipating failure in the days ahead. I am working for success. I think it is hard to construct a scenario, with a newly elected president of the United States, one year in office, with Democratic control of the House and the Senate; a strong mandate for the Congress party in India; a commitment on China’s part to work to be a deal-maker rather than a deal-breaker; and leadership from the European Union . . . it’s hard to construct a scenario whereby we will be in a better place in a year’s time or two years’ time than we find ourselves in this December, to get the kind of agreement that we want. Now there’s a lot of work to be done after Copenhagen, but right now our focus is in trying to land as ambitious and effective an agreement as we can in the days ahead so we can continue that progress thereafter.

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