The fact that President Obama has decided to attend the United Nations climate change negotiations in Copenhagen at the end of the two-week meetings on December 18th, rather than during the previous week on his way to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, is important, because it increases – in my mind – the likelihood of a significant outcome from the negotiations. However, my reasoning – as I explained in a blog post for the Financial Times – is not what most people may think. It is a matter of what is called “endogeneity” in economics, that is, there is causality in both directions. That’s a bit cryptic, so let me explain.
[Before I proceed, I should explain that I have agreed to blog periodically from Copenhagen for the Financial Times, analyzing some of the issues before the negotiators in response to questions from the Financial Times' editors and reporters. Those posts can be viewed at the Financial Times energy-source web site.]
Although it is true that President Obama’s presence on the concluding day of the negotiations (when – taking Kyoto in 1997 as an example – some of the key deals are finally struck) can have some influence, it is even more true that this decision by the White House signals that the Administration has reason to believe that there will be a visibly successful outcome of the Copenhagen talks.
His initial decision to visit the negotiations the previous week would have shielded the President – to a considerable degree — from any embarrassment and bad publicity if the negotiations were to fall apart. (The President does not need to fly back from Copenhagen a second time having failed on his mission; his attempt to bring the Olympic games to Chicago is still fresh in the minds of the international press.)
Therefore, the 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. This is a subject on which I wrote in the Boston Globe (“A Silver Lining in the Climate Talks Cloud”) on Sunday, December 6, 2009, and it is my major focus here.
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 this international conference aimed at 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 making the United Nations notion of “common but differentiated responsibilities” meaningful through a the dual principles that: 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).
This would represent a great leap beyond what has become the “QWERTY keyboard” (that is, unproductive path dependence) of international climate policy: the distinction in the Kyoto Protocol between the small set of Annex I countries with quantitative targets, and the majority of countries in the world with no responsibilities. 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.