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December 10, 2009

"Defining Success for Climate Negotiations in Copenhagen"

Robert Stavins gives his assessment what will constitute "real progress" in the Copenhagen climate talks:

Defining Success for Climate Negotiations in Copenhagen, by Robert Stavins: ...[T]he fact that the White House has decided to send the President to Copenhagen for the final day, where he will assemble with some 90 other world leaders, and participate in closing statements (not to mention photo opportunities), indicates that the Administration is relatively confident that the talks will not collapse in a logjam of disagreement between the industrialized world and the developing countries, but rather that there will be a successful outcome.
The key outstanding question is whether the outcome will be one that provides a sound foundation for meaningful, long-term global action, not simply some notion of immediate, albeit highly visible triumph. ...
The gloom and doom predictions we’ve been hearing about the global climate negotiations taking place in Copenhagen this week and next are fundamentally misguided. The picture is much brighter than it might seem for ... coming up with a successor for the Kyoto Protocol, which essentially sunsets in 2012.
The best goal for the Copenhagen climate 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 and should be 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 for national leaders. 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 (let alone by the numerous developing countries of the world).
Such an agreement could — in principle — be signed, but it would not reduce global emissions and it would not be ratified by the U.S. Senate (just like Kyoto). Hence, there would be no real progress on climate change.
If it’s not reasonable to expect that a comprehensive post-Kyoto policy architecture will be identified in Copenhagen, what would constitute real progress? One important step forward would be a constructive joint-communiqué from major countries (just seventeen industrialized and emerging economies account for about 90% of annual emissions).
Such a joint-communiqué could lay out key progressive principles to underlie a future climate agreement, such as...: all countries recognize their historic emissions (read, the industrialized world); and all countries are responsible for their future emissions (think of those rapidly-growing emerging economies). ... Various policy architectures could subsequently build on these dual principles and make them operational, beginning to bridge the massive political divide which exists between the industrialized and the developing world.
In addition, a mid-term 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 multi-year development plans. Support for such an approach has been voiced by a remarkably diverse set of countries, including Australia, India, and the United States.
The key question is not what this approach would accomplish in the short-term, but whether it would put the world in a better position two, five, and ten years from now in regard to a long-term path of action.
Consistent with this portfolio approach, President Obama recently 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 line with climate legislation in the U.S. Congress). 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. Subsequently, India announced similar targets. Given these countries rapid rates of economic growth, the announced targets won’t cut emissions in absolute terms, but they are promising starting points for negotiations.
So, despite the multitude of negative pronouncements about the slow pace of international climate negotiations, there are 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.

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