Forgetting Copenhagen: poll results on the outcome of COP-15

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This post was drafted around midnight, Dec 16, 2009. In 48 hours COP-15 will have delivered on its objectives, or perhaps not—by the time you read this, you should know. My message here is that the outcome of global negotiation should not be emphasized so as to divert attention from the core issue, i.e., the policies to be put in place, the resources to be raised, and the politics to be changed, domestically.

I have been blogging these past few days on what people (in our multicountry poll) think of different aspects of the climate change debate. Now I'm turning to what people believe regarding the negotiations. It turns out that most of our roughly 13,000 respondents are happy to see their countries limit GHGs in the context of a deal. This was somewhat expected, although the numbers are striking (and remember that respondents were told in a previous set of questions on 'willingness to pay'  that such limits would come at a cost.)


Another striking result concerns the extent to which people see a global deal as a precondition for an agreement. We asked respondents whether they'd be happy for their country to take action even without a global agreement. The numbers are smaller, but you still get huge majorities. In China and some other developing countries, the difference is marginal. Now you might come back with comments on how most people don't get the powerful economic and scientific arguments which make a global deal unavoidably necessary. Perhaps. But people generally get what cooperation, or lack thereof, means. If Copenhagen fails—they seem to say—it'll be a shame, but ultimately we ask for sound responses anyway.


The World Development Report 2010 on Development and Climate Change ends by stressing that 'climate smart action starts at home'. Let me use its last two paragraphs to end this post:


The quest for appropriate responses to climate change has long focused on the need for an international agreement—a global deal. Although important, a global deal is only a part of the answer. Climate change is certainly a global market failure, but one articulated according to locally defined causes and effects and mediated by context-specific circumstances.

This means that climate policy—for both mitigation and adaptation—has local determinants. A study on the adoption of renewable portfolio standards across U.S. states shows that political liberalism, renewable energy potential, and concentrations of local air pollutants all increase the probability that a state will adopt such standards. On the other hand, carbon intensity tends to decrease this probability. International regimes influence domestic policies, but the reverse also holds. A country’s behavior in shaping, adhering to, and implementing a climate deal depends on domestic incentives. Political norms, institutional structures, and vested interests influence the translation of international norms into domestic political dialogue and policy, while shaping the international regime by driving the national actions. A country’s wealth, its energy mix, and its economic preferences—such as the propensity for state-driven or market-driven responses—will shape mitigation policy. Cultural and political traditions are added to economic and administrative considerations in choosing taxes or cap-and-trade. And because of the lack of an international sanctioning mechanism, the incentives for meeting global commitments need to be found domestically, through concentrated local benefits such as cleaner air, technology transfer, and energy security. 

Climate action is already taking place. Countries have shown different levels of and performance in reducing emissions. Small countries—which in theory should have incentives to free ride, given their negligible role in global emission reductions—have so far undertaken more aggressive actions than the big players. In some countries subnational measures and homegrown policy responses are already affecting national policy and the position of countries in the international arena. And the private sector is showing that old practices can give way to new visions.

Reversing the institutional inertia that constrains climate policy requires fundamental changes in interpreting information and making decisions. A range of actions can be taken domestically by national and subnational governments as well as by the private sector, the media, and the scientific community. Although establishing an effective international climate regime is a justified preoccupation, it should not lead to a wait-and-see attitude, which can only add to the inertia and constrain the response.



Andrea Liverani

Lead Specialist in the Europe and Central Asia Region's Environment, Natural Resources and Blue Economy Global Practice

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