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Copenhagen's Inconvenient Truth
How to Salvage the Climate Conference
September/October 2009
Michael Levi
MICHAEL A. LEVI is David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment at the Council on Foreign Relations.
This December, diplomats from nearly 200 countries will gather in Copenhagen tonegotiate a successor to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which for the first time bound wealthy countries to specific cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Most of these emissions come from burning fossil fuels -- coal, oil, and natural gas -- for energy, from deforestation, and from the agricultural sector. They must be cut deeply in the coming decades if the world is to control the risks of dangerous climatechange.
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 facecatastrophic 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-awaitedshift 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 vanishinglysmall. 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 Copenhagenconference.
Many U.S. lawmakers want absolute near-term emissions caps from China and India, but those countries will not sign up for anything of the sort for at least another decade. And before they consider a deal of any kind, Chinese and Indian negotiators are demanding that developed countries commit to cutting their greenhouse gas emissions by over 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2020, butnone of the world's wealthiest countries will even come close to meeting this goal. Meanwhile, China, together with other developing countries, is also asking the wealthy nations to commit as much as one percent of their collective GDP -- more than $300 billion annually -- to a fund that would help the rest of the world reduce its emissions and adapt to climate change. But Western politicians willnot be willing to send anything near this amount of money to their economic competitors in order to secure a deal.
Some of these disagreements stem from negotiating bluster, but there is little sign that anyone is ready to make big compromises. And the high demands of any comprehensive global agreement are only half the problem. Even a blockbuster deal in which every country signed up to bindingemissions caps would come nowhere close to guaranteeing success, since the world has few useful options for enforcing commitments to slash emissions short of punitive trade sanctions or similarly unpalatable penalties. The core of the global effort to cut emissions will not come from a single global treaty; it will have to be built from the bottom up -- through ambitious national policies and...
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