Will capitalism clean up the world?

It all feels a bit familiar as, five years after the Copenhagen debacle, world leaders gather in New York on Tuesday to talk about reaching a global agreement on tacking climate change. The summit is expected to launch another long trek towards a treaty at the end of next year.

But this time almost everything is different from 2009, when the talks failed. Economics are figuring larger than ecology this year. Some of the most obstructive countries in Copenhagen are now pushing hardest for a treaty, while some of the keenest back then look like they’re dragging now. And – though environmentalists don’t like admitting it – the world is making progress through adopting a suggestion from the much-reviled George W Bush.

There are, of course, some things that stay much the same. Global emissions of greenhouse gasses continue unabated: this month, the World Meteorological Organisation reported that they grew at their fastest in three decades last year, and are now at record levels. And Christiana Figueres, UN chief of the treaty negotiations, warned again that time to curb them is running out.

Nevertheless, the buzz is more about expanding economic opportunities than impending ecological disaster, real though that may be. The key report published this week in preparation for the summit was not from Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth or any of the usual suspects, but rather by leaders of the IMF, Bank of England, OECD, China Development Bank, World Bank and businesses usually treated as enemies by greenies. Its message? Tackling climate change can help, not harm, economic growth.

Hard cash increasingly says so too. Last year there was greater worldwide investment in renewable energy than in fossil fuels for the fourth year in a row, as the cost of solar and windpower tumbles. The worldwide market in low carbon goods and services exceeds £3.4 trillion a year and often outperforms the rest of the global economy. No country has seen the opportunity more clearly than China, now the world’s biggest renewables investor. Formerly better known for rapidly building coal-fired stations, it has closed and cancelled scores of them, mainly to combat the air pollution that kills some 250,000 Chinese a year.

The main obstacle to progress in Copenhagen, China is now taking the lead in calling for action - along with that other erstwhile bugbear, America. Barack Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, have made securing a climate treaty a legacy issue. The president, by taking executive action to get round an obstructive Congress, and aided by the rapid expansion of shale gas, is bringing down US emissions.

India’s recent elections – says Britain’s Energy Secretary, Ed Davey - have “changed the mood” in another traditionally reluctant nation. Navendra Modi, the new prime minister, boosted renewables while serving as chief minister of Gujerat, and Davey says he “has the will and commitment” to do the same nationally.

By contrast, the EU - which led the push for change in Copenhagen – has been growing less enthusiastic, and the new president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, seems determined to downgrade the issue.

The emerging agreement, too, is totally different from the one on the Copenhagen table. That sought to set a global ceiling on greenhouse gas emissions and then divide them between nations. This one starts at the other end, with governments pledging what they think they can achieve – a concept originally advanced by George W Bush.

For the first time all nations, including the smallest and least polluting, will join in. But the scheme has an obvious flaw. It’s most unlikely that the pledges will be nearly enough to head off serious climate change; PricewaterhouseCoopers has calculated that international efforts would have to increase fivefold to do so.

But it is the best that is reasonably achievable. And the, not unrealistic, hope is that – once a clear signal is given that the future is low carbon – the competitive power of capitalism will rapidly cause the world to exceed the targets.

Yet, disappointingly, Modi, China’s president Xi Jinping, and chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany won’t be at the New York summit. Inevitably their absence diminishes it – but, equally, it opens up an opportunity for David Cameron. Every British prime minister for the past 35 years has played a central, constructive – and often crucial – role in climate negotiations; Cameron, more than any since Margaret Thatcher, firmly believes in their importance.

He has, of course, been pretty quiet on the issue of late. But, as the last week north of the Border has shown, critical times call for the courage of prime ministerial convictions.

Geoffrey Lean pioneered the coverage of green issues long before they became fashionable and has won Scoop of the Year in the British Press Awards and the Martha Gelhorn Award for investigative journalism.

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