Keeping up appearances at Copenhagen

John Key turns out to be a slow follower: a ticket to Copenhagen, long after dozens of other heads of government have bought theirs.

He gets to have dinner with the Queen — Denmark’s, not his — then a day of schmoozing, all to limited avail except that not to be there sends a message of insincerity.

That is important because for New Zealand climate change is primarily a reputational issue.

If climate change takes the course United Nations scientists predict, we will be among the least affected of countries — though we will have a responsibility to worse-hit Pacific island states.

But long before things go bad, this country may strike a different change of climate — in international acceptability of its products and services.

Winegrowers and horticulturalists know that multinational retail chains are the “new regulators”, seeking branding as reliable suppliers to picky consumers in middle-class Asia as well as rich Europe and North America.

Low scores for environmental performance — for example, degraded waterways — and for greenhouse gas emissions could cut premiums for food, forest products and tourism or even lose sales. Wholesalers are starting to refuse to book tourists into facilities that don’t meet environmental minimums.

So a show of intent at Copenhagen is important.

Key has also to ensure there is not another change of climate — in goodwill toward New Zealand in the negotiations.

Whatever the “deniers” and “sceptics” say, of whom Key’s caucus has a fair number, too many heavyweight global political leaders are now taking the United Nations science seriously.

As a mini-country, New Zealand has no real choice but to be a good international citizen. That doesn’t automatically get rewarded but helps get a hearing on things that matter to us.

New Zealand co-chairs a working group on forestry, which ups the chances of getting a better deal than under Kyoto on flexibility in dealing with pre-1990 forests and on improving carbon uptake by indigenous forests (like reducing the damage by goats, deer and possums). It also wins credibility because slowing the destruction of forests in developing countries — one-fifth of global emissions — is a major issue for negotiators.

New Zealand is also a go-between for rich and poor countries on agriculture, having worked with the latter on that issue. Agriculture accounts for one-seventh of the world’s emissions in various forms — and food demand is rising. Officials say the “global alliance” New Zealand hopes to lead on agriculture emissions research has been well received.

So at the talks which run for two weeks from today New Zealand will be a small but relevant voice. Key’s presence on the last day underlines that. His fear of being associated with failure misread what is really involved.

But, for all that, why bother? There will be no ratifiable legal agreement there. That has long been agreed. So won’t Copenhagen just be hot air?

Not so, officials say. There is growing optimism of a high level agreement, with numbers, that will generate a political-moral momentum that makes a legal agreement potentially achievable in 2010 or 2011. Key has to be there for that.

The core of a high-level agreement is 2020 targets for emissions cuts by “developed” countries and targets for reducing emissions intensity for “advanced developing” countries such as China and Brazil. The quote marks are there because Singapore and South Korea, by an accident of the original “convention”, are classed as “developing” though they are now “developed” and richer than New Zealand.

Agreement is also needed on mechanisms to reach those targets and to measure and verify what countries do. There is a huge amount of work to do on forests, agriculture, ships and aircraft, offsets, financing efforts in less-well-off countries and transfer of climate combat technology.

Many countries are taking targets to Copenhagen. Norway tops the “developed” group, with a 40 per cent cut in emissions compared with 1990. China and India have said they will cut current emissions intensity by 40 per cent and 24 per cent respectively.

How believable are the politicians? There will be deceit and/or sleight of hand, even by the European Union which claims climate leadership. Policing any arrangements will be devilishly difficult. Chinese windfarms came under the microscope this week.

And even if the targets are all met in full, they would likely leave emissions above levels in 2020 consistent with holding warming to 2 degrees, the goal in front of negotiators this week.

But if the Copenhagen process ties in all countries in some way, that would be a basis for a more ambitious deal late next decade. By then, if the United Nations scientists are right, there might also be enough damage and, as a result, popular concern to push governments harder.

Key — once a climate change sceptic — had cause to be sceptical about this month’s talks. But Prime Minister Key in 2017 might be pleased he went.