Failure at Copenhagen, time for a new approach

Lets face it, Copenhagen was a failure. No commitment to carbon cuts, no targets set. Nothing that will slow the rise in GHG concentrations in the atmosphere, to say nothing of lowering them to 350ppm as some say is needed to avoid the worst effects of global warming.

At best it could be described as a first step towards a meaningful climate deal, but the difficulty of establishing carbon caps for every country still seems like an insurmountable task.

So it seems worth repeating, that we need carbon prices, not quotas.

Frankly, a Kyoto-type framework–one with global quantitative emissions targets allocated among countries–that meets the above conditions is not feasible. The only approach that will fulfill the conditions and relieve countries’ apprehensions regarding sovereignty and free riding is one in which all countries agree to penalize their carbon emissions in such a way that, over time, an internationally harmonized carbon price prevails. Consequently, the negotiation’s focus would not be on emissions quotas but on the harmonized carbon-price trajectory.

And I am not the only one who thinks so. James Hansen has been saying just as much, actually hoping that for failure, because according to him the type of deal likely reached at Copenhagen is worse than no deal at all.

As does James Handley from the Carbon tax center:

What does it all mean? Like so many, I came to Copenhagen with a vague hope for a “fair and binding” agreement. I now question whether that was even a good framework to begin with. “Fair” now seems to point toward an endless struggle over allocating rights to emit carbon; and “binding” to incessant legal wrangling over monitoring and enforcement. In contrast, Klimaforum showed that leadership doesn’t have to come from the top, whether the UN or our so-called leaders. And sadly, the UN showed that it won’t.

What’s a better framework? How about one major trading bloc (e.g., the European Union or the U.S.) setting a steadily-increasing carbon tax? That would create pressure for others to follow, as the carbon-taxing countries collected (and kept) the laggards’ carbon taxes for them at the border. In effect, penalize the laggards while offering a bounty of tax revenue for those that join. The only international agreement needed — if at all —  would be that every country will enact a carbon fee, along with clarification of World Trade Organization rules on border tax adjustments. Nations don’t even need to agree on the same carbon tax rate, since individual countries’ rates can be harmonized at the border.

Forget targets, verification, offsets, trading… And don’t wait for the UN. Just lead: set a carbon price. The world will follow.

This shift in strategy wont be easy, but seems easier than getting world leaders to agree on specific carbon quotas for each country. It also seems a far simpler and more effective solution.

On the other hand perhaps we don’t need an agreement on caps for every country. If the worlds major emitters come together to lower emissions, then that could be enough.

And Obama did manage to secure such an agreement:

Five nations, including China and the US, reached a deal on a number of issues, such as a recognition to limit temperature rises to less than 2C.

No it doesn’t mandate the emission cuts needed to limit temperature rises to less than 2C, but it does highlight another way forward:

we don’t need 192 nations to come to an agreement on mitigating carbon emissions in order to get the job done. We only need those countries responsible for 85% of emissions to move forward on the pathways identified by the IPCC with a promise to the world to do so in a responsible manner. Other agreements should be left to the UN, such as instruments for dealing with adaptation and technology transfer. But it might be better to find a forum for carbon abatement that is less hampered by the procedural constraints that have hindered this process.

Fewer countries at the negotiating table means fewer potential obstructions, and that might just be enough to make real progress on this issue:

The goal of giving every country, big and small, equal say in crucial issues and the need for unanimous consent led to countries such as Sudan and Tuvalu playing an outsize role in global negotiations. British climate secretary Ed Miliband called the two-week process a “farce,” and called for a reform of the UN process, saying “We cannot again allow negotiations on real points of substance to be hijacked in this way.”

Indeed, it’s not clear whether the summit’s conclusion underscores the need to ditch the existing UN framework or whether that framework has already been scuttled…

So what’s that leave? Perhaps a return to climate talks between a handful of major economies which between them account for the vast majority of greenhouse-gas emissions. As Michael Levi puts it:

This conference has also starkly demonstrated the limits of the UNFCCC process. Future climate arrangements are far more likely to be hammered out in small groups like the one that gathered Friday night to salvage a deal than in plenaries of nearly two-hundred countries…this is likely to be the last time that the world places such high hopes on the global climate conference.

Yes, there’s a name for that—the Major Economies Meeting or Forum. That’s something that then-president George W. Bush started, and which President Obama kickstarted. It puts the emphasis on reaching emissions agreements between countries—with the U.S. and China at the forefront—whose climate policies actually will make or break global attempts to rein in emissions, and whose economies produce clean-tech gear and generate the hundreds of billions of dollars needed to help the rest of the world adapt.

Of course, as Mr. Levi points out, President Bush’s idea alone wouldn’t bear fruit: Witness the rest of the world’s intransigence on taking steps without some sort of U.S. commitment in writing.

That is, the breakdown of the UN process in Copenhagen may drive climate talks in a more productive direction—but even that won’t go far unless the U.S. Senate takes up climate legislation in earnest next year.

Even some Republicans agree:

“Home run,” said Mark Helmke, a top staffer to Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee. “Satisfied the Europeans. Made China into a major world player, but made them accountable. Elevated India, Brazil and South Africa to world stage. Cut an important side deal with Russians on arms control.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), added, “Whenever you have developing countries, and certainly China and India stepping forward and indicating that they have a willingness to be a participant, I think that’s a strong indicator that we’ll have opportunities to be working and I think that that is progress.”

At the very least both of these new approaches offer more hope than the current approach has offered us. And that is something to feel optimistic about.

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