Copenhagen’s Inconvenient Truth

EDITOR'S NOTE: United Nations climate change talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, this December should aim to improve current national policies and pursue targeted emissions cuts in rich and developing nations, writes Michael A. Levi, a senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations. For his full essay, please visit the Foreign Affairs magazine's Web site. A few excerpts:

Most of those devoted to slashing the world's greenhouse gas emissions have placed enormous weight on the Copenhagen conference. Speaking earlier this year about the conference, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was emphatic: "We must harness the necessary political will to seal the deal on an ambitious new climate agreement in December here in Copenhagen… If we get it wrong we face catastrophic damage to people, to the planet."

Hopes are higher than ever for a breakthrough climate deal. For the past eight years, many argued that developing nations reluctant to commit to a new global climate-change deal - particularly China and India - were simply hiding behind the United States, whose enthusiastic engagement was all that was needed for a breakthrough. Now the long-awaited shift in U.S. policy has arrived. The Obama administration is taking ambitious steps to limit carbon dioxide emissions at home, and Congress is considering important cap-and-trade and clean-energy legislation. The road to a global treaty that contains the climate problem now appears to be clear.

But it is not so simple. The odds of signing a comprehensive treaty in December are vanishingly small. And even reaching such a deal the following year would be an extraordinary challenge, given the domestic political constraints in Washington and in other capitals that make such an agreement difficult to negotiate and ratify. The many government officials and activists seeking to solve the climate problem therefore need to fundamentally rethink their strategy and expectations for the Copenhagen conference.

The aim of a deal at Copenhagen should be to reinforce developed countries' emissions cuts and link developing countries' actions on climate change to objectives in other areas - such as economic growth, security, and air quality - that leaders of those countries already care about. If, instead, negotiators focus on fighting against various governments' most entrenched positions, they may leave the world with nothing at all.

Moving targets

The goal of climate diplomacy should be a safe planet rather than a treaty for its own sake. There is an emerging consensus among negotiators that the world's governments should aim to cut emissions in half, ideally from 1990 levels, by 2050. This basic goal, endorsed by the G-8 (the group of highly industrialized states) at its 2008 summit, should frame U.S. calculations.

This target needs to be divvied up fairly between wealthy and developing nations. Even if rich countries managed to reduce their emissions to zero and all other nations held theirs steady, the world would still miss its 2050 target. With great effort, today's rich countries might be able to cut their emissions to 80 percent of 1990 levels by mid-century - a goal endorsed by the G-8 at its 2009 summit - but even that will be very hard. Developing countries, in some cases with Western financial or technological support, will need to make up the substantial difference.

The European Union, Japan, and the United States have each proposed cutting their emissions by about 15 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, although each defines its objectives differently. These objectives are unlikely to change significantly, and although some are weaker than they should be, they provide a realistic starting point for action. Yet similar goals for the world's other big emitters - Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, and Russia - would be unreasonable. China, India, and Indonesia have per capita GDPs that are less than a tenth that of the United States; Brazil and Russia are richer but still lag far behind the United States. As these countries develop and bring people out of poverty, their emissions will naturally rise - and they should not be penalized for economic growth.

The goal for these three countries should be to deliver cuts in emissions intensity - emissions per unit of GDP - roughly equivalent to those the United States and Europe hope to achieve, aided where appropriate by Western financial and technological help. Under such a plan, emissions growth in China, India, and Russia would slow sharply. And if their economies develop along the lines that many project, their emissions would actually start to drop around 2025 - a staggering turnaround that would help put the world on a safer environmental path.

Americans accustomed to thinking about climate diplomacy within the framework of the Kyoto Protocol may assume that the obvious next step is to translate reduction goals into emissions caps, put them in a treaty, and establish a system for global carbon trading. But this would be problematic for three reasons.

First, negotiators from developing countries would insist on much less stringent caps than whatever they thought they could meet.

Second, even if a developing country met its agreed emissions cap, other nations would, in the near term, have little way of verifying this, since most developing countries, including China and India, lack the capacity to robustly monitor their entire economies' emissions.

And finally, even if the problems of excessively high caps and poor verification could be solved, simple caps would have little value on their own.

The solution to all three problems is to focus on specific policies and measures that would control emissions in the biggest developing countries and on providing assistance and incentives to increase the odds that those efforts will succeed.

Regime change

Washington's goal in Copenhagen should be an agreement that strengthens the foundation for emissions-cutting actions elsewhere - unilaterally and through international cooperation - just as the foundational deals of the nonproliferation and trade regimes continue to support a host of institutions and efforts. If, instead, Copenhagen is seen as a major failure, it will sap the momentum of those fighting climate change and expose the United States to excessive blame. Realistic expectations and the right negotiating strategy are essential.

Confidence building

The negotiations leading up to Copenhagen have proceeded along five tracks: mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology, and creating a vision for long-term cooperative action. Mitigation focuses on near-term commitments to cutting emissions; adaptation, on efforts to deal with unavoidable climate change; finance, on schemes to pay for emissions cuts; technology, on frameworks for advancing and distributing low-carbon technology; and creating a long-term vision, on developing a simple framework that ties all this together. The United States needs something serious to offer on each front. It should also have a strong proposal for a scheme to measure, report, and verify countries' actions, another integral part of the negotiations.

The COHA round

An ambitious and legally binding deal on the other fronts - mitigation, finance, and technology - would be invaluable because it would increase confidence on all sides, which would, in turn, encourage further emissions-reduction efforts. But such a deal will be much harder to achieve and may be too far a reach right now. Negotiators should instead keep their expectations in check, aim for political agreement at Copenhagen on the form that a legal treaty on these fronts would ultimately take, and launch negotiations to fill in the difficult details later. If the major governments do eventually reach a comprehensive legal agreement, it may not happen for several years. This delay should not stop the Copenhagen delegates from striking intermediate deals and implementing their own national policies to put the world on the path to a safer climate.

Gaining concessions from developing countries' governments and support from European allies will require Washington to make credible financial offers as well. Such financial support will likely need to rise over time to more than $10 billion each year - a large number, but only about three percent of what Washington spends on imported oil. The United States should push the biggest and wealthiest developing country emitters to agree that they will need to take significant actions on their own before they can expect financial help from Washington. This sort of "matching" approach, which makes clear that everyone is investing effort, is the only one that has a chance of being accepted politically in the United States.

The best Copenhagen can do on mitigation, finance, and technology is to establish a longer-term bargaining process in which the goal is getting the major developing countries to agree to specific emissions cutting measures and getting wealthy countries to agree to provide assistance to poorer ones while also cutting their own emissions. This "Copenhagen Round" would be much more like an extended trade negotiation than like a typical environmental-treaty process. It may take many years before this results in a meaningful, legally binding agreement - and even that outcome is far from assured.

This makes it even more important for the United States to ensure that deals on adaptation, a long-term vision, and verification are not held hostage to what may be a very long stalemate. Washington should aim to have a deal on those fronts outlined in principle at Copenhagen and ironed out over the next year, even as work continues on the other parts of the agenda. Most important, the United States should make sure that aggressive bottom-up efforts to actually start cutting emissions, such as a U.S. cap-and-trade system and a sophisticated Brazilian effort to curb deforestation, do not wait for agreement on a comprehensive global deal. That is where the real action is, and there is no time to waste.

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