June 30, 2010
Foreign Affairs: Policy, not Carbon Caps, for Success in Copenhagen
By Johanna Peace, Breakthrough Fellow
If there's anything that's certain as the world draws closer to December's climate summit in Copenhagen, now less than 100 days away, it's this: so-called binding carbon caps aren't working. That failed model--which has created an unproductive air of tension between developed and developing nations in climate negotiations to date--is why chances of reaching a successful and effective global agreement in Copenhagen are "vanishingly small," as Michael Levi, Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment at the Council on Foreign Relations, states in the latest Foreign Affairs.
"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."
Namely, any carbon caps are certain to be weak and insufficient (just look at the proposal currently being debated in Congress); compliance would be nearly impossible to monitor or verify; and a lack of punitive measures would mean countries could easily shirk on their promises without fear of consequences. In other words, the same reasons that Kyoto is failing now are certain to doom a newer climate deal that's predicated on the same idea.
But it doesn't have to be that way. The negotiation of a new climate treaty to replace Kyoto presents a window of opportunity for an entirely new framework--an opportunity to reverse Kyoto's backward approach to reducing global emissions. Rather than making empty emissions reduction pledges that nations may have no intention--or more importantly no policy means--to fulfill, an alternative framework would scrap the targets and focus instead on actively cutting emissions by directly decarbonizing the power sector and directly improving the energy efficiency of key, heavy-emitting industries and sectors. These efforts would be less top down and far more bottoms-up, targeting specific sectors through the implementation of direct, measurable policies to develop and deploy clean and efficient energy technologies.
"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. Such bottom-up initiatives could include, among other things, requiring efficient technology in heavy industry, subsidizing renewable energy, investing in clean-coal technology, improving the monitoring and enforcement of building codes, and implementing economic development plans that provide alternatives to deforestation. These measures would not be any less binding than emissions caps in practice. Moreover, if designed properly--and if they add up to deep enough cuts in each country's emissions--they would be far more likely to work. Actual emissions cuts happen because of policies, not promises, and the simple fact that governments could directly control these policies would increase the likelihood of success."
There's another advantage to this approach: unlike binding emissions caps, it's something that key developing countries like China and India are far more likely to embrace. Why? Because they're already doing it. China and India may seem uncooperative from an international perspective for refusing to adopt targets and timetables to cut emissions, but domestically they've each shown real willingness to take the necessary actions toward building clean energy economies.
In China, for instance, a massive $440-660 billion clean energy investment package set to be released this year will drive China's rapid progress in clean energy deployment and bring the nation closer to becoming the leader in a profitable clean energy market. India, too, has shown that investment in clean energy technologies is a national priority. It's putting that priority into action with its ambitious National Solar Mission, aiming to deploy an astounding 20 GW of solar generation capacity by 2020.
These nations are investing heavily in clean energy technologies not to achieve some unrealistic promise of emissions cuts, but because they know their development and economic growth prospects depend on it.
As Levi argues:
"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...By focusing on intensity rather than total emissions, the United States would assuage worries--especially in China--that climate diplomacy is a Western plot to constrain developing countries' growth. The current Chinese five-year plan, together with a range of technical analyses, provides some hope that this might be a realistic bargain."
Developed nations, including the United States, need to make similar commitments to invest in the development and deployment of clean energy technologies--and they need to set these development and deployment goals as the centerpieces of a global climate treaty, as well. For averting climate change and ensuring a prosperous, sustainable future, it's the world's only hope.