Sunday, December 4, 2016

Bas Eickhout: What climate negotiations are worth

The real cause of climate change is not too many CO2 emissions, but too little political will. But the Paris Agreement is a political document that will help change that. That is the message of “Climate Mores” by Bas Eickhout, a Dutch Member of the European Parliament.

To illustrate the lack of political will, Eickhout recalls an awkward statement of the Dutch Prime Minister Marc Rutte: “Vision is as the elephant that obstructs the view. If vision is a blueprint for the future, then everything liberal in me opposes this”. Rutte meant to say that we can only make change if we keep our minds open, by letting go of old certainties and building on new ones. Like the certainty that change will also have to come from society itself. Eickhout qualifies this statement ironically as an easy “thumbs up from the sidelines” of the climate negotiations. Leaving it up to private partners without showing private partners the way.

Often private partners themselves also lack an open mind and a vision on what the way to less CO2 emissions should look like. Because they apply a rule that prevents them from being creative and effective: only mind your own business. Example: a chemical company like BASF should not interfere with CO2 emission norms in the car industry. But stricter CO2 emission norms for cars would require the car industry to make their cars lighter. And guess where the car industry will find the lighter materials? Right, in chemical companies like BASF. So it would very much make sense for BASF to look into this sustainable development model. Especially if governments had a long-term vision that would support and nudge the car industry in that direction at the same time. Win-win.

But least 4 reasons prevent the Dutch government from developing such long-term vision for climate change Eickhout writes. Firstly the Netherlands is less motivated to change because it literally sits on a natural gas bubble. Secondly we are cheap: we prefer ideological debates when they are not costly, like promoting LGBT rights. Thirdly we became dependent on the benefits of a heavy fossil industry which benefits itself from an excellent port infrastructure in Rotterdam for cheap steel, oil and coal transportation. And fourthly in the Netherlands climate change is doubted more than elsewhere because the climate skepticism in the US media are echoed in the Dutch media.

Nevertheless Eickhout’s book is very positive, thanks to the diplomatic breakthrough in Paris last year. Many compliments for France which accomplished what Copenhagen failed to do: bring the world’s biggest polluters China and the US on board of a binding climate agreement. Yes it binds governments to only voluntary emission reductions. But also to a clear 2°C target and to the obligation to update the world every 5 years on what they concretely do to reduce climate change. Fossil giants can no longer hide behind the argument that other fossil giants should make an effort too, because the agreement is global.

I personally tend to insist a lot on changing our own mores and behavior to fight climate change. But after reading Climate Mores I understood better that change can only come from society if governments guide and back up the green energy transition with a long-term vision and long-term measures. Because changing mores is too difficult as long as the main question of the market remains unethical: if the money is quick and easy and not if it’s clean.

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