The road to Pittsburgh with Parag Khanna

Friday marked the beginning of a 100-day countdown to Copenhagen, where the world’s governments will meet in December 2009 to hammer out a new agreement to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

Oxfam made a splash (literally) by staging an event at the London Aquarium, drawing attention its hope that some kind of safe, fair deal to cut emissions by 40% by 2020 and set aside $150 billion to help poor countries adapt to the effects of our carbon pollution will be reached. Before Denmark however, comes the last ’stop’ on the road, the next G20 in Pittsburgh.

After attending the London Summit back in March, one of the things that was very obvious was a sense of preparation in all of the answers that were given, no matter what the question covered (funny that, coming from a roomful of politicians).

This time around, one of the most important things is to try and get a real sense of how things have moved on since then. Instead of doing this on the fly, I’ve enlisted Parag Khanna to help me prepare. Director of the Global Governance Initiative and Senior Research Fellow in the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, his focus is on cultural development and its affect on policy.

Starting with the location of the Summit itself, Khanna told me just how appropriate Pittsburgh as a model is for replication of economic and environmental transformation really is. “There aren’t many transferable models in terms of eco-environmental transformation – it really depends a lot on the raw materials like the labour force, geography and markets. One could envision Detroit having green cars and other non-polluting technologies for the future if its infrastructure is properly converted.”

But Summits are usually just a chance to take a lots of ’shaking hands’ photos, make grand statements about aid that are never fulfilled (in London, the G20 agreed to treble the resources of the IMF from $250 billion to $750 billion but the deal to do so has yet to be put in place) and generally put a smiling face on something that’s actually already been decided behind closed doors.

Will Pittsburgh be any different? Since the last talks, most economies have shown signs of stabilisation or modest recovery and stock markets have risen strongly, with the MSCI Global index up by nearly 60% from its lows in early March. We should be in a steadier position to make some changes, though Gerard Lyons said in The Times last week that ‘imminent but fragile global recovery is not blown off-course by premature policy tightening’.

“There is a real complacency that might be setting in, something analogous to what happens when consumers lose interest in fuel efficient transport simply because oil prices go down. It is likely that G20 countries are going to retain the strong domestic focus that was deeply evident despite the optics of the summit. Each wants to retool its economy with a strong emphasis on domestic job creation, and that requires cleverly wiggling free of open market policies,” Khanna continued.

It’s also been noted that balancing the diplomatic niceties at power groups like G20 with the bare knuckled fights at formal negotiations under the UN framework is tough. But Khanna pointed out that actually, the G20 meetings are pretty hard going as well: “On issues like protectionism, climate, and tax havens, G20 leaders and diplomats have had extremely tough debates. So both the G20 and the UN are a mix of behind-the-scenes bickering and public photo-ops.”

At this stage, its still not certain how an agreement will be reached. The ClimateWorks Foundation says that UN climate change talks will fail to reach a meaningful agreement with the proposals made so far. “The technologies required are largely available today, the policies needed are known, and the costs are manageable”.

But if it’s really that achievable, what’s the problem? Khanna elaborated on these points: “Technologies are available but have not been deployed at the right scale, in the right places. The policies are known but many countries have only halfheartedly mandated them, and few enforce them. Costs are manageable, but in diplomacy the game has been about pushing the costs on others rather than absorbing them.”

The UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change has launched a ‘Road to Copenhagen’ document which details each country’s promises. Japan, the US and Russia fall predictably far behind the other participating countries. Pressure will undoubtedly be on them during Pittsburgh and Copenhagen. The UN talks leading up to Copenhagen have not eased this either, as they have been slurried by disagreement over who should be required to take action. Rich countries taking the lead or poorer ones reducing emissions straight away?

As Khanna rightly points out, this debate has grown stale, and threatens to turn the process into another version of the NIEO debates of the 1970s in which poor countries railed against the rich in pursuit of redistribution policies. “It won’t work,” he says. “Rich countries should actively reduce emissions, but some ‘poor’ countries like China and India have more than enough money to pay for new technologies as well and stand to gain tremendously from moving in that direction now.”

Like many, including the NGOs directly involved in the G20Voice project, Khanna agrees that the April G20 summit made a raft of promises which have not been kept, ranging from refraining from trade protectionist measures, to providing agricultural support for developing countries. “Unfortunately since the G20 is not a legal/treaty-based body, it can’t really bind its members beyond peer pressure. NGOs and others are right to worry that even as Western economies appear to be recovering, they are no closer to agreement on the way forward on climate change, development finance, and other areas.”

Combine this last point with that of the ClimateWorks statement, one of the most important questions is likely to be: ‘If the solutions are possible and the funding is theoretically there, how will the G20 overcome a need to implement them without being held to a legally-binding?’

What do you think?

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