State of the Planet

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There Was No Big Bang, and There Won’t Be

This is the thirty-fourth 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.

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The three pages of text that emerged after years of preparation and two weeks of intense negotiation in Copenhagen signally fail to address what the document correctly calls “one of the greatest challenges of our time” – global climate change. To many, the Copenhagen Accord will seem a setback; actually, it is a continuation of a long history of failure. The essential problem lies with the strategy of addressing this complex issue by means of a single agreement. Breaking this colossal problem into smaller pieces would allow us to achieve more.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called the Copenhagen Accord “a beginning.” A beginning? Wasn’t the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, negotiated in 1992, a beginning? Wasn’t the Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997, a beginning? Why, after two decades of negotiation are we still “beginning”?

To some, the failure in Copenhagen is due to the UN process. It’s true that the process failed. But process is not the real problem. The real problem is the way we have conceptualized our response to this challenge. In the run-up to Copenhagen, the process produced a draft text that ran over 180 pages, most of which identified areas of disagreement. This approach was essentially abandoned in Copenhagen.

A select group of rich countries, including the United States and Britain, prepared their own draft text, as did a group of developing countries, including China and India. Both of these texts noted the need to limit temperature change to 2 degrees C. In other respects, however, they diverged. The proposal by rich countries implicitly stated that the emissions of poor countries must decline. The proposal by fast-growing poor countries supported the Kyoto Protocol, which limits the emissions of rich countries only. The Copenhagen Accord, rejected by only a small number of developing countries, reflects a lowest-common-denominator compromise.

Copenhagen is a political statement, not a legally binding treaty. But the fact that the Kyoto Protocol is a legally binding treaty has made almost no difference. The United States did not participate. Some of the countries that did participate will not comply. Others will comply only by some clever accounting. The political nature of Copenhagen is a problem, but it is not the only or even the most important problem. The bigger challenge is negotiating specific obligations that can be enforced.

The Copenhagen Accord asks rich countries to specify quantitative economy-wide emissions targets for 2020 in January 2010, adding that the rich-country parties to the Kyoto Protocol “will thereby further strengthen the emissions reductions initiated by the Kyoto Protocol.” But countries have been declaring emission targets for more than two decades, with little if any effect. What is to be gained by doing this again?

Canada’s emissions today exceed the level allowed by Kyoto by more than 30 percent, and Canada has no plans to comply, implying that Kyoto is already dead. By not even setting a date by which new targets and timetables might be agreed, Copenhagen further undermines Kyoto’s authority.
One interesting change is that the Copenhagen Accord allows countries to specify their own base year. Kyoto established 1990 as the base year. This gave advantage to Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union, as it was easier for them to meet a given target relative to this base year than it was for countries like Japan and the United States. Proposed U.S. legislation has used 2005 as the base year–surely why Copenhagen allows countries to specify their own base year. However, choice of a different base year does not help to address the fundamental difficulty of knowing whether countries are making “comparable” sacrifices. The announced U.S. target of 17 percent reduction in emissions, if calculated on the 1990 baseline, amounts to barely 4 percent–less than the reduction the United States agreed to in Kyoto in 1997.

Under Copenhagen, the fast-growing poor countries like China will implement “mitigation actions,” including those submitted in early 2010. This aspect of Copenhagen is a departure from Kyoto, which imposed emission-reduction obligations only on rich countries. It is an important change. Emissions in these countries have been growing faster than in rich countries. Moreover, the U.S. Congress will not approve legislation without assurances that these countries are taking actions. However, there is nothing in the agreement to ensure that the pledges are truly meaningful. For example, China has already declared that it would seek to reduce its emissions per unit of economic output. But emissions intensity has been falling in China for years, even without a climate policy. And China’s emissions would still increase if its rate of economic growth outpaced its reduction in emissions intensity.

The agreement is more specific in one area. The rich countries make a collective commitment to finance $10 billion per year from 2010-2012 for mitigation and adaptation in the poorest countries, increasing to $100 billion per year by 2020. However, the agreement does not state explicitly how much of this money should be contributed by individual countries. Nor does it specify rules for spending the money.

Failure by the U.S. Congress to pass climate legislation hindered progress in Copenhagen. What effect will Copenhagen have on the United States? It seems likely that the case for U.S. action has been harmed. Congress will not want the nation to adopt controls that are out of synch with those adopted by many other countries, especially China and India.

Climate change is the greatest collective action problem in human history, so we should not be surprised that it has been difficult to address. But our approach has made it harder than necessary. A better way to negotiate would be to break this colossal problem up into smaller pieces, addressing each piece using the best means appropriate.

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 those already controlled by another treaty, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, signed in 1987, and ratified by the United States Senate by a 83-0 majority. If we controlled HFCs under a treaty styled after Montreal, we could be confident that they would be phased out. Montreal is enforced, and in contrast to Kyoto, has been very effective. It should also be relatively easy to agree on a program for research, development, and demonstration of carbon capture and storage—a key technology for reducing emissions substantially in the future.

There is no alternative to negotiating treaties to address climate change, but there is an alternative negotiating strategy.

A version of this piece earlier appeared in YaleGlobal Online.

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

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