As Hopes for Treaty out of Copenhagen Fade, Possibility of Climate Progress Remains
What a difference a few months makes. This summer, the goal of the upcoming Copenhagen climate conference was a signed international climate treaty with enforceable carbon reduction targets. A comprehensive draft of such a treaty was circulated for review, with high hopes of ratification by the year’s end.
Now, the goal for Copenhagen is simply to talk about climate change and what might be done, as reported by Politico.com on Saturday. Certainly, that’s an attainable goal—if there’s anything you can get senior diplomats and government officials to do, it’s talk—but what happened? How did putting in place an actual treaty to replace the soon-to-expire Kyoto Protocols turn into simply hoping to advance international discussions?
Probably nothing “happened.” With hundreds of billions of dollars, economic development, and international trade competitiveness all at stake, binding multinational agreement may be impossible; and if achievable, will almost certainly require years of painstaking negotiation. All that has “happened” is public acceptance of what should have been obvious from the beginning.
Why was agreement this year foredoomed? Some, like Germany’s Chancellor Merkel, place a significant part of the responsibility on the United States for not passing its own climate change legislation, but that’s simplistic. Without denying the U.S.’s importance to any multinational agreement generally or fighting global warming specifically, blaming the U.S. ignores the reason why it has not passed climate legislation.
That reason is cost. The price of carbon reduction will be hundreds of billions of dollars—at least. Domestically, U.S. legislators are reflecting constituent’s unease with something that may cost them and their families significant sums, whether through higher energy costs, higher prices for food or manufactured goods, or lost jobs.
(To digress for a moment: make no mistake—while the exact cost is open to debate, there will be a cost. Nobody is actually “pro” emitting carbon; if it could be reduced at no or low cost, energy companies, utilities, and manufacturers would be doing it already, if only for the good PR.)
The issue of cost is not just domestic though—there is international disagreement over how much cost each nation will bear. African nations want the West to make exceptionally aggressive cuts in carbon emissions, which will help save Africa from some consequences of global warming while costing western economies greatly. Meanwhile, China has repeatedly demanded that developed nations make deeper emissions cuts than developing nations while also donating up to 1 percent of their GDP to developing nations (including China) to pay for carbon reduction efforts. Everyone is hoping that someone else will pick up this tab.
Given that it can take months to negotiate a simple business deal between two parties, expecting the entire world to come to an agreement affecting every human being on Earth in the same time frame was optimistic to the point of delusion.
What does this mean for the Copenhagen summit and the fight against climate change? As for the summit, as Secretary of State Clinton recently put it, realistically, the Copenhagen talks may be a “steppingstone” to global climate change agreement—but it’s not going to produce that agreement itself. What’s likely to emerge from the talks is simply an agreement to keep talking.
Is this a bad thing? There’s reason to think it isn’t. At the end of the day, a “binding” or “enforceable” international treaty is neither—it’s not as if China could be arrested for emitting too much carbon. International agreements are only as good as the intentions of the nations that sign them. A treaty that is unworkable will simply be ignored—history is replete with examples of that happening.
And, as the Los Angeles Times reported on Monday, an agreement in Copenhagen that has been downgraded from a legally-binding treaty to a “handshake” agreement could help the chances of passing a climate bill in the US. One of the central arguments of the Boxer-Kerry climate bill’s opponents is that US emissions-cutting legislation would put it at an economic disadvantage in trading with developing nations (specifically China) that have made no commitment to emissions reductions. A pledge from China, however informal, to reduce its greenhouse emissions, would help even the playing field of trade with the US and perhaps win new support for the climate bill in the Senate.
Although any agreements on climate change that come out of Copenhagen will fall well short of initial goals, they could provide an important foundation to serious progress toward emissions reductions, both inside and outside of the United States.