News from the Columbia Climate School

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Sum of the Parts

This is the twenty-sixth of a continuing series of essays and interviews from Earth Institute scientists on the prospects for a global climate-change treaty. Check with us daily for news and perspectives, and to make comments, as events unfold throughout the Copenhagen meetings.

Image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/generated/501445202/
Image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/generated/501445202/

Copenhagen is being scaled back. Whereas originally the hope was to have a treaty incorporating “legally binding” targets and timetables, now the aim is to reach a “political agreement.”

This matters much less than you might think. The Kyoto Protocol, which entered into force in 2005, already incorporates “legally binding” targets, but it lacks any means of being enforced. If we were to be honest, Kyoto was always a “political agreement.”

Kyoto has also had almost no impact. The United States never joined. China is a party to the treaty, but it is not required to cut its emissions. Canada is also a party, and it is required to cut its emissions, but Canada will not comply with the agreement. In fact, it will fall short of Kyoto by a mile.

What we need is an agreement that enforces changes in specific behaviors –not one that sets abstract targets and timetables that are never met. Unfortunately, we’re on course to repeat old mistakes.

We could do better. For example, we could negotiate a separate agreement limiting the emissions of one of the gases controlled by the Kyoto Protocol—hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). This chemical is very similar to the chemicals already controlled by another treaty, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, which was signed in 1987. If we controlled HFCs under a treaty styled after Montreal, we could be confident that a phase-out of this chemical would succeed. This is because Montreal is enforced. In contrast to Kyoto, it has been very effective.

scott_earthsky_audioOther greenhouse gases cannot be controlled in this same way, and of course, we need to do a lot more than phasing out HFCs. But starting there might change the way we conceptualize the broader challenge. Rather than try to address everything in one grand agreement, as Kyoto aimed to do and as Copenhagen was hoping to do, we would do better to negotiate a system of complementary agreements, each of which addresses just a part of the overall problem—but each of which succeeds, because it is enforced.

The Clinton administration negotiated the Kyoto Protocol, hoping it would be ratified by the United States Senate. But just a few months before the Kyoto conference, the Senate passed a non-binding resolution 95-0 saying that the United States should not sign any protocol that would mandate emission limits for countries like the United States but not for countries like China, or that would harm the U.S. economy. It also said that any such protocol should be accompanied by a detailed explanation of the legislation and regulatory actions that would be needed to implement the protocol. The Clinton administration had trouble convincing the Senate that the Kyoto Protocol satisfied these requirements, and never requested that the treaty be ratified.

The Montreal Protocol, by contrast, was approved by the Senate–during the Reagan years, by a margin of 83-0 votes. The difference: Montreal met the above requirements. It established limits for countries like China, and would not harm the U.S. economy. Moreover, Montreal’s limits were determined not in a top-down way but by technical assessment panels that had worked out what would need to be done in order to fulfill the limits. These requirements were easily be implemented by regulations.

The Obama administration is determined not to repeat the Clinton administration’s mistake. Instead of negotiating a treaty and hoping it will be ratified, it is counting on Congress to pass domestic climate legislation with targets and timetables, so that the administration can pledge the United States to meet these as part of a multilateral exercise. The reason for this approach? Domestic legislation requires only 60 Senate votes; ratification requires 67. However, Congress is making its targets contingent on other nations adopting similar limits. The problem is that the obligations of other countries are not being negotiated; they are being imposed. This approach could trigger hostile reaction—possibly, a trade war.

There is no alternative to negotiating ways to address climate change, but there is an alternative negotiating strategy. A better way to negotiate would be to break this colossal problem up into smaller pieces, addressing each piece using the best means appropriate. Failure to reach an overall agreement in Copenhagen might possibly be an opportunity—if only we dare to think differently about how to limit global greenhouse gas emissions.


Scott Barrett is Lenfest-Earth Institute professor of natural-resource economics at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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