Robert N. Stavins

A silver lining in the climate talks cloud

By Robert N. Stavins
December 6, 2009

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GLOOM AND doom predictions regarding the global climate negotiations in Copenhagen this week are fundamentally misguided. The picture is much brighter for this international conference aimed at coming up with a successor for the Kyoto Protocol, which essentially sunsets in 2012.

The best goal for the talks is to make real progress on a sound foundation for meaningful, long-term global action, not some notion of immediate triumph. This is because of some basic scientific and economic realities.

First, the focus of scientists (and policy makers) is on stabilizing concentrations at acceptable levels by 2050 and beyond, because it is the accumulated stock of greenhouse gas emissions, not the flow of emissions in any year, that are linked with climate consequences.

Second, the cost-effective path for stabilizing concentrations involves a gradual ramp-up in target severity, to avoid rendering large parts of the capital stock prematurely obsolete.

Third, long-term technological change is the key to the needed transition from reliance on carbon-intensive fossil fuels to more climate-friendly energy sources.

Fourth, the creation of long-lasting international institutions is central to addressing this global challenge.

Indeed, it would be easy, but unfortunate, for countries to achieve what some people wish to define as “success’’ in Copenhagen: a signed international agreement, glowing press releases, and related photo opportunities. Such an agreement could only be the Kyoto Protocol on steroids: more stringent targets for the industrialized countries and no meaningful commitments by the key rapidly growing emerging economies of China, India, Brazil, Korea, Mexico, and South Africa. Such an agreement could, in principle, be signed, but it would not reduce global emissions and it would not be ratified by the US Senate (just like Kyoto). Hence, there would be no real progress on climate change.

So, what would constitute real progress? One important step forward would be a constructive joint-communiqué from major countries (just 17 industrialized and emerging economies account for about 90 percent of annual emissions). Such a joint-communiqué could lay out key progressive principles to underlie a future climate agreement, such as making the notion of common but differentiated responsibilities meaningful through the dual principles that: all countries recognize their historic emissions (read, the industrialized world); and all countries are responsible for their future emissions (think of those emerging economies).

This would represent a great leap beyond the major stumbling block in current international climate policy: the distinction in the Kyoto Protocol between the small set of Annex I countries with quantitative targets, and the majority of countries in the world with no responsibilities. Various policy architectures could subsequently build on these principles and make them operational, beginning to bridge the massive political divide that exists between the industrialized and the developing world.

In addition, a midterm agreement could be reached on an approach involving an international portfolio of domestic commitments, whereby each nation would commit and register to abide by its domestic climate commitments, whether those are in the form of laws and regulations or multiyear development plans. Support for such an approach has been voiced by a remarkably diverse set of countries, including Australia, India, and the United States.

President Obama announced that the United States would put a target on the table in Copenhagen to reduce emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. In response, China announced that it would reduce its carbon intensity (emissions per unit of economic activity) 40 percent below 2005 levels over the same period of time. Given China’s rapid economic growth, that won’t cut emissions in absolute terms, but it is a promising starting point for negotiations.

So, despite the multitude of negative pronouncements about the slow pace of international climate negotiations, there are some positive developments and promising paths forward. It is fortunate that a few key nations, including the United States, appear to be more interested in real progress than symbolic action. Nevertheless, there will likely be anti-US demonstrations outside the Copenhagen meeting hall, as well as disapproving public pronouncements from more than a few countries. Any such blame game should be firmly rejected by the United States, which ought to be thanked, not condemned, for its serious stance.

Robert N. Stavins is a professor of business and government at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he directs the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements.

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