Side-events and the Burnley Summit

The negotiations at Bonn and Copenhagen are reflex actions distracting us from a more important problem; mere side-events to a set of negotiations which is not taking place: what to do now.

We have less than ten years to stabilise emissions. To limit warming to 2 degrees we can emit no more than one trillion tonnes of greenhouse gasses between 2000 and 2050. We have eaten almost a third of the way through that cake already. Therefore the burningly critical issue, with implications for life on earth, is what happens in the immediate future.

Despite this, everyone is talking about 2050 and 2020, 41 and 11 years ahead. 2050 and 2020 are an irrelevance. The folk scrabbling and babbling around the conference centres are chasing a mirage.

Why are we not focussed solely and ruthlessly on the next five years? Could it be because politicians, with few exceptions, find it comfortable making bold plans for a time when they will be dead? Could it be that academics, with some exceptions, prefer to amuse themselves with aesthetically pleasing long-term models instead of tackling the really tough gritty smelly messy bruising problem of what to do tomorrow? Dare not liberals admit that democracy has hit a brick wall? Does the authoritarian right want to squeeze that last bit of oil out of the ground before it has to concede it got that one wrong?

Nothing as sinister as all that. We are excited and comforted by a bold vision of 2050 and 2020, round numbers far enough away to retain mystery, close enough to feel that we are doing something. We cannot reconcile savage focus on the short term with the habit of rejecting short-term thinking as the problem.

Let’s call the main event, to which Bonn and Copenhagen are side-shows, the Burnley Summit. It took place in a modest town in northern England with no mermaids.

The outcome of the Burnley Summit was:

– China agreed to zero emissions growth between 2008 to 2013.

– It agreed to an immediate ban on commissioning of new coal-fired capacity, steel plants, cement plants, or ammonia plants, unless replacing existing less efficient capacity.

– It agreed to no net increase in aeroplane fleets or kilometres flown.

– It agreed to install methane capture systems on all landfill sites, coal mines, water treatment plants, and farms.

China will keep to that agreement because it has a knack at getting things done.

– India agreed to very modest growth and in return provided 100,000 gurus who would travel the world and demonstrate to us a simple, practical and gentle lifestyle.

– Brasil and Indonesia agreed to an immediate enforced ban on deforestation in return for annual payments of ten billion USD each from the international community.

– The EU and the USA agreed to a ten percent cut in emissions between 2008 and 2013 including a phased closure of an agreed number of coal-fired power plants; temporary suspension of operations of a number of cement and steel plants; a cessation of all new airport and road construction; compulsory installation of methane capture systems in all landfill sites, water treatment plants, and coalmines; a ban on meat-eating except on Sundays and public holidays; minimum temperatures in buildings in the summer of 20 degrees C and maximum temperatures in winter of 19 degrees C, with limited health-based exceptions.

– The IMF and the banking community agreed to disburse no more funds to any country unless it agrees to similar commitments

It will hurt workers in heavy industry and butchers. But these are tough men who don’t cry easily, and we will help them generously. The demise of mining and steel communities in England led to hardship. But it did not lead to disease and death.

The Burnley Summit will do good to a lot of people – lentil farmers, sheep farmers, manufacturers of building control systems, suppliers of energy efficiency equipment; manufacturers of methane control systems; train drivers, boat builders, pullover manufacturers, and Italian restaurateurs.

The short-term commitments of the Burnley Summit mean that climate change will finally collide with the electoral cycle. These emergency measures will require a level of intervention and control unknown in peace time. But it is the way to avoid catastrophe.

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