The UN negotiations later this year need to build on the last 15 years of international climate talks. So how do we get a good outcome?
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The most important contribution that Tony Blair has made to environmental politics during this time in office has to been to propel the climate change issue into international arenas. He started this ball rolling in earnest with a September 2004 speech that signalled his intention to use the UK presidencies of the G8 and EU for this purpose. In both cases, some progress has indeed been made. This is good news, because to stand a reasonable chance of avoiding temperature increases of more than 2C (4F), then emissions need to peak and then quickly fall in under a decade.
Earlier this year, the EU heads of state signed up to an emissions reduction target of 20% by 2020. Friends of the Earth argued that to be in line with its commitment to play its part in preventing temperature increases of more than 2C that this target should have been at least 30%, and indeed the leaders said that if other countries would step up to the challenge, that the EU would be prepared to go that far. In terms of what the other big polluting countries will now do, there are two meetings this year that will in large part signal what is possible by when. The first is the G8 meeting in Germany in June and the other is the Bali UN climate change negotiations in December.
The G8 process was a calculated political move by Blair to create a "safe" discussion forum for the Americans and some of the big polluter developing countries (especially China and India). These and other nations have been terrified (for differing reasons) that they might be pressured in a formal UN process into taking on binding targets. Blair's idea was to get them talking in an informal setting where binding commitments were not on the table. This is in large part why the G8 discussions, kicked off before Gleneagles in 2005, have been so concerned with technology and trading schemes, rather than targets and timetables. Although we will ultimately need a formal agreement that sets out who is going to do what, I think this is OK, up to a point.
The G8 process has, for example, helped to inch George Bush a little further forward on the climate change question, accepting that it is happening (grudgingly) and getting words agreed about the role of technology. Having said this, the main force in moving Bush has undoubtedly been the dramatic shift in the US public opinion that has taken place in the last couple of years. From state and city leaders to the heads of corporations and from the Christian right to scientific institutions, the US establishment has moved and left the Bush administration isolated.
The president has clung to his old scepticism, however, resolutely refusing to admit an urgent challenge or the need for a coordinated global response. And that remains the case. Moving the Whitehouse to the next stage must not only involve diplomacy but also a hardening of the mood back home in the US, which is happening and which is a cause for optimism. Blair and others need to recognise this political dynamic and to build on it, not only talking with the president, but reaching out to the vast range of other US opinion formers who are fast changing the political landscape there.
Even if Bush does signal some acceptance of the science, however, it is still a big leap from there to getting multilateral agreement on targets and timetables. And this is the real danger. If Blair sees his main job as getting Bush to acknowledge the problem, then the urgent need to get a legally binding deal in the UN might, in a diplomatic and political sense, be neglected. There have been signs of this for some time. For example Tony Blair has repeatedly signalled that he sees a future Kyoto-style agreement as unachievable (definitely a US-centric view) and has suggested that something else might work better. This kind of talk is unhelpful, especially since the most important UN negotiations on climate change since the Kyoto accord in 1997 are set to take place after the G8, later this year in Bali. That meeting needs to agree legally binding targets and timetables, as well as voluntary action from some of the big developing countries' emitters, backed with assistance from the developed countries.
Getting a deal in Bali must be seen as the real prize. Certainly the G8 can be an important milestone, but the political strategy needs to see Bali as the main opportunity. If there is to be any real chance of staying below two degrees of warming, then Bali must build on the last 15 years of international climate talks, and all the finely honed nuances contained in the Kyoto mechanisms, to set out a new future deal. Of course Kyoto is flawed, but it is the best we have and it will not be replaced by a more effective agreement coming out of the G8 talks.
So how do we get a good outcome at the UN? Well the G8 can certainly contribute by underlining how the latest science dictates the need for a global response underpinned by clear formal rules. The EU can do its bit as well, by putting in place the measures to meet its own Kyoto targets, and then moving toward the more ambitious 20% recently agreed to. This needs to be done by the EU as a whole and by individual governments as well. The UK is in a good position to take a lead.
Earlier this year, Friends of the Earth's Big Ask campaign succeeded in persuading the British government of the need for a domestic legal framework to manage scientifically determined cuts in emissions. A draft climate change bill was published in March and is now being consulted on. It has widespread support across the political spectrum, from business and a whole host of civil society groups. If this bill is made strong, with legally binding annual emissions reduction targets, if it includes a scientifically determined 2050 reduction target (of at least 80%) and if it includes international shipping and aviation, then it will be a genuine source of leadership and will undoubtedly lend credibility to British efforts to secure a global deal.
To move forward on climate change, the world will still need individual leaders to show the way, however. When Tony Blair steps down, who will take up the torch to light up the climate change issue on the global political stage? Angela Merkel is one contender. Perhaps too is Gordon Brown, although he has shown relatively little interest in the issue, certainly compared to his work on poverty alleviation. But he could do it, if he wanted to, not least on the back of domestic leadership coming from a good bill turning into a strong act of parliament, and thus gaining what Tony Blair has sometimes lacked: the credibility that comes from taking decisive action yourself.
Whoever seeks to fill Blair's boots on this subject will perhaps have the most important political legacy in all of human history, for whoever can broker the breakthroughs needed on climate change has the opportunity to save human civilisation. I think that is a legacy worth having.