POLITICS

Veteran of climate talks begins to feel slight momentum toward progress

LONDON -- Climate change is slowly starting to crawl back up the political agenda both domestically and internationally after years in the doldrums following the chaos of failed climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2009. Still, it has a mountain to climb, according to John Ashton, the United Kingdom's former climate change ambassador.

In part it is being revived by public shock over recent violent weather disasters, such as the multibillion-dollar flooding in Central Europe and the tornadoes, continuing drought and dangerous forest fires burning in the American West. Then there is the puzzle of the very late and short spring in Europe this year. Ashton says events like these have reawakened public awareness that something is wrong.

He has been a player in years of long and often frustrating diplomatic struggles to deal with the issue and was the United Kingdom's special representative on climate change from 2006 until he quit in the middle of last year. His departure came before, as he put it, he wound up on the wrong side of the barricades.

As he sees it, there is a revived global debate about energy prices and energy security and a slowly gathering momentum in the cycle of international discussions on the climate. The efforts are combining to shake politicians out of the torpor into which they sank after the near-collapse of the U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen.

"On climate change, the tide has been out since Copenhagen. It was an enormous blow, and people got burned by it. Top politicians who were there did what politicians always do when they get associated with a failure -- they make a mental note not to go anywhere near that subject for a while," he explained in an interview.

'We are past the low point'

"But the tide on climate change is now coming back in. Events are now helpful. We are past the low point," he added. The impact that Superstorm Sandy "had on the U.S. presidential election was quite interesting."

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Ashton saw some hope that the momentum will build into next year. He looks forward to the next assessment report of the International Panel on Climate Change and a meeting of world leaders on climate change set by the United Nations for September 2014 in New York. "So all of a sudden, the eyes of the world will be on the leadership signal on climate change for the first time since Copenhagen," he said.

At the same time, the International Energy Agency has imparted more urgency, warning last week that global average temperatures could rise by more than 5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels this century, with devastating consequences, unless urgent action is taken to slash carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels for power and transport.

The IEA noted that despite scientists pointing out that climate change was the biggest single threat to mankind, fossil fuels were still being subsidized by an average $110 a metric ton globally, while the carbon price was languishing around $5 a metric ton.

Europe is trying to fix the faltering European carbon cap-and-trade system, which sets the carbon price. Raising it would promote low-carbon power and transport as well as energy efficiency. Meanwhile, China has been talking of imposing an absolute cap on its booming emissions from 2016.

While these are glimmers of light, for Ashton there remain many dark clouds, not least of which is the fact that politicians across the globe seem to have lost contact with their electorates.

"There is a sense out there that business as usual has broken. At the moment, our system is not acknowledging that problem, and it is certainly not engaging in addressing it."

He praised Germany's renewable energy policy that has seen the country erect 28 gigawatts of wind power capacity and about 20 GW of solar photovoltaic capacity with the aid of substantial subsidies. But he noted that, as with other places in Europe that are still struggling out of recession after nearly five years in the doldrums, there were signs of the momentum slowing.

France and Spain are reducing subsidies for renewables, Spain retroactively, and in the United Kingdom, the climate change adaptation team in the environment ministry is being slashed to six people from 38. The United Kingdom is also scaling back its support for renewables and focusing instead on a "dash for gas" despite the problems in the United States with shale gas fracking and a growing public backlash against it.

Yet a new poll for the U.K.'s Institution of Mechanical Engineers shows that 51 percent of people support more renewables while just 8 percent favored more gas-fired power plants.

Can the U.S. lead by 2015?

For both the IEA and Ashton as well as others who have been involved, the crunch will come in U.N. climate talks set for Paris at the end of 2015, when a new global climate treaty is due to be agreed on, a prospect not helped last week by Russian blocking of preparatory talks in Bonn, Germany (see related story).

"Copenhagen failed, in the crudest terms, because we hadn't built the political foundation for the deal we were trying to do. Too many of the players there saw the low-carbon economy as a risk rather than an opportunity, and at the same time too many of them felt that while they understood that climate insecurity was a danger, it was sort of abstract: tomorrow, not today. It was not a clear and present danger. So that is what has got to be done," Ashton said.

He is not at all certain that in the current political situation, the Obama administration can provide much leadership.

"The U.S. is in the midst of a much deeper internal struggle. Climate change has become a signal in that deeper struggle between very different and incompatible political forces who have very different ideas of what America is about. While that struggle is unresolved, it is simply not possible for America to do the things necessary for it to be seen from outside as a leader in this."

He added, "We haven't got time to wait for that, so we have to find a way of assembling a strong enough impulse that takes account of that problem. We have to accommodate that without letting it pull us all down."

In Ashton's view, "that puts a very big weight both on the shoulders of Europe -- the world's largest single market -- and China -- the world's fastest-growing economy, which is going to be the world's biggest economy fairly soon."

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