What Happened (and Why): An Assessment of the Cancun Agreements

The international climate negotiations in Cancun, Mexico, have concluded, and despite the gloom-and-doom predictions that dominated the weeks and months leading up to Cancun, the Sixteenth Conference of the Parties (COP-16) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) must be judged a success.  It represents a set of modest steps forward.  Nothing more should be expected from this process.

As I said in my November 19th essay – Defining Success for Climate Negotiations in Cancun – the key challenge was to continue the process of constructing a sound foundation for meaningful, long-term global action (not necessarily some notion of immediate, highly-visible triumph).  This was accomplished in Cancun.

The Cancun Agreements – as the two key documents (“Outcome of the AWG-LCA” and “Outcome of the AWG-KP”) are called – do just what was needed, namely build on the structure of the Copenhagen Accord with a balanced package that takes meaningful steps toward implementing the key elements of the Accord.  The delegates in Cancun succeeded in writing and adopting an agreement that assembles pledges of greenhouse gas (GHG) cuts by all of the world’s major economies, launches a fund to help the most vulnerable countries, and avoids some political landmines that could have blown up the talks, namely decisions on the (highly uncertain) future of the Kyoto Protocol.

I begin by assessing the key elements of the Cancun Agreements.  Then I examine whether the incremental steps forward represented by the Agreements should really be characterized as a success.  And finally I ask why the negotiations in Cancun led to the outcome they did.

Assessing the Key Elements of the Cancun Agreements

First, the Cancun Agreements provide emission mitigation targets and actions (submitted under the Copenhagen Accord) for approximately 80 countries – including, importantly, all of the major economies. In this way, the Agreements codify pledges by the world’s largest emitters – including China, the United States, the European Union, India, and Brazil – to various targets and actions to reduce emissions by 2020.  The distinction between Annex I and non-Annex I countries is blurred even more in the Cancun Agreements than it was in the Copenhagen Accord – another step in the right direction!

Also, for the first time, countries agreed – under an official UN agreement – to keep temperature increases below a global average of 2 degrees Celsius.  It brings these aspirations, as well as the emission pledges of individual countries, into the formal UN process for the first time, essentially by adopting the Copenhagen Accord one year after it was “noted” at COP-15.  (There’s also an abundance of politically-correct and in some cases downright silly window dressing in the Cancun Agreements, including repetitive references to various interpretations of the UNFCCC’s principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities,” as well as some discussion of examining a 1.5 C target.)

However, despite even the 2 degree (450 ppm concentration) aspirational target, the Agreements are no more stringent that the collection of submissions made under last year’s Copenhagen Accord.  But, as Michael Levi (Council on Foreign Relations) has pointed out, the Cancun Agreement “should be applauded not because it solves everything, but because it chooses not to.” As my colleagues and I have repeatedly emphasized in our work within the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, many of the most important initiatives for addressing climate change will occur outside of the United Nations process (despite the centrality of that process).

Second, the Agreements elaborate on the mechanisms for monitoring and verification that were laid out in last year’s Accord.  Importantly, these now include “international consultation and analysis” of developing country mitigation actions.  Countries will report their GHG inventories to an independent panel of experts, which will monitor and verify reports of emissions cuts and actions.

Third, the Agreements establish a so-called Green Climate Fund to deliver financing for mitigation and adaptation. Importantly, the Agreements name the World Bank as the interim trustee of the Fund, despite objections from many developing countries, and create an oversight board, half of which consists of donor nation representatives.  In addition, the Agreements establish a goal by developed countries to mobilize $100 billion annually by 2020 to support mitigation and adaptation in developing countries, a funding target which would include public and private resources (that is, carbon markets and private finance), bilateral and multilateral flows, as well as the Green Climate Fund.

Whether the resources ever grow to the size laid out in Copenhagen and Cancun will depend upon the individual actions of the wealthy nations of the world.  However, it’s interesting that the section in the Cancun Agreements on adaptation comes before the section on mitigation.  Things have come a long way since the days when economists were virtually alone in calling for attention to adaptation (along with mitigation).  I recall when economists were therefore accused of throwing in the towel, and not caring about the environment!

Fourth, the Agreements advance initiatives on tropical forest protection (or, in UN parlance, Reduced Deforestation and Forest Degradation, or REDD+), by taking the next steps toward establishing a program in which the wealthy countries can help prevent deforestation in poor countries, possibly working through market mechanisms (despite exhortations from Bolivia and other leftist and left-leaning countries to keep the reach of “global capitalism” out of the policy mix).

Fifth, the Cancun Agreements establish a structure to assess the needs and policies for the transfer to developing countries of technologies for clean energy and adaptation to climate change, and a – as yet undefined – Climate Technology Center and Network to construct a global network to match technology suppliers with technology needs.

In addition, the Agreements endorse an ongoing role for the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and other “market-based mechanisms;” indicate that carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects should be eligible for carbon credits in the CDM; and offer some special recognition of the situations of the Central and Eastern European countries (previously known in UN parlance as “parties undergoing transition to a market economy”) and Turkey, all of which are Annex I countries under the Kyoto Protocol, but decidedly poorer than the other members of that group of industrialized nations.

That’s the 32-page Cancun Agreements in a nutshell.  As a member of one of the leading national delegations said to me in Cancun a few hours after the talks had concluded, “It’s incremental progress, but progress nonetheless.”

Are Such Incremental Steps Really a Success?

Recall from my November 19th essay that the best goal for the Cancun climate talks was to make real progress on a sound foundation for meaningful, long-term global action.  I said that because of some fundamental scientific and economic realities, which I will not repeat here.  In that previous essay, I also described “What Would Constitute Real Progress in Cancun” A quick comparison of my criteria from November 19th and the Cancun Agreements of December 11th tells me that the outcome of Cancun should be judged a success.

My first criterion of success was that the UNFCCC should embrace the parallel processes that are carrying out multilateral discussions on climate change policy:  the Major Economies Forum or MEF (a multilateral venue for discussions – but not negotiations – among the most important emitting countries); the G20 (periodic meetings of the finance ministers – and sometimes heads of government – of the twenty largest economies in the world); and various other multilateral and bilateral organizations and discussions.  Although the previous leadership of the UNFCCC seemed to view the MEF, the G20, and most other non-UNFCCC forums as competition – indeed, as a threat, the UNFCCC’s new leadership under Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres displays a positive and pragmatic attitude toward these parallel processes.

My second criterion was that the three major negotiating tracks be consolidated.  These tracks were:  first, the UNFCCC’s KP track (negotiating national targets for a possible second commitment period – post-2012 – for the Kyoto Protocol); second, the LCA track (the UNFCCC’s negotiation track for Long-term Cooperative Action, that is, a future international agreement of undefined nature); and third, the Copenhagen Accord, negotiated and noted at COP-15 in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December, 2009.

Permit me, please, to quote from my November 19th essay:

Consolidating these three tracks into two tracks (or better yet, one track) would be another significant step forward.  One way this could happen would be for the LCA negotiations to take as their point of departure the existing Copenhagen Accord, which itself marked an important step forward by blurring for the first time (although not eliminating) the unproductive and utterly obsolete distinction in the Kyoto Protocol between Annex I and non-Annex I countries.  (Note that more than 50 non-Annex I countries now have greater per capita income than the poorest of the Annex I countries.)

This is precisely what has happened.  The Cancun Agreements – the product of the LCA-track negotiations – build directly, explicitly, and comprehensively on the Copenhagen Accord.  The two tracks have become one.

Alas, the KP track remains, and a decision on a potential second commitment period (post-2012) for the Kyoto Protocol has been punted to COP-17 in Durban, South Africa, in December, 2011.  It is difficult to picture a meaningful – or any – second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol, with the United States out of that picture, and with Japan and Russia having stated unequivocally that they will not take up another set of targets, and with Australia and Canada also unlikely to participate.  But note that this issue will have to be confronted in Durban a year from now.  With the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol ending in 2012, COP-17 will provide the last opportunity for punting that contentious issue.

If you agree with my view – which I have written about in many previous blog posts – that the Kyoto Protocol is fundamentally flawed and that the Protocol’s dichotomous distinction between Annex I and non-Annex I countries is the heavy anchor that slows meaningful progress on international climate policy, then you will not consider it bad news that a second commitment period for the Protocol is looking less and less likely.  On the other hand, you will, in that case, share my disappointment that the issue has been punted (recognizing, however, that had it not been punted, the Cancun meetings could have collapsed amidst acrimony and recriminations).

I also wrote in my November 19th post:

The UNFCCC principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” could be made meaningful through 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).

The Cancun Agreements do this by recognizing directly and explicitly these dual principles.  This can represent the next step in a movement 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.

A variety of policy architectures can build on these dual principles and make them operational, bridging the political divide which exists between the industrialized and the developing world.  (At the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, we have developed a variety of architectural proposals that could make these dual principles operational.  See, for example:  “Global Climate Policy Architecture and Political Feasibility: Specific Formulas and Emission Targets to Attain 460 PPM CO2 Concentrations” by Valentina Bosetti and Jeffrey Frankel; and “Three Key Elements of Post-2012 International Climate Policy Architecture” by Sheila M. Olmstead and Robert N. Stavins.)

My third criterion for success was movement forward with specific, narrow agreements, such as on:  REDD+ (Reduced Deforestation and Forest Degradation, plus enhancement of forest carbon stocks); finance; and technology.  Such movement forward has, in fact, occurred in all three domains in the Cancun Agreements, as I described above.

My fourth criterion for success was keyed to whether the parties to the Cancun meetings could maintain sensible expectations and thereby develop effective plans.  This they have done.  The key question was not what Cancun accomplishes in the short-term, but whether it helps put the world in a better position five, ten, and twenty years from now in regard to an effective long-term path of action to address the threat of global climate change.

Despite the fact that some advocacy groups – and for that matter, some nations – are no doubt disappointed with the outcome of Cancun, I think it is fair to say that this final criterion for success was satisfied:  the Cancun Agreements can help put the world on a path toward an effective long-term plan of meaningful action.

Why Did Cancun Succeed?

If you agree with my assessment of success in Cancun, then a reasonable question to ask is why did the Cancun talks produce this successful outcome, particularly in contrast with what many people consider a less successful outcome of the Copenhagen talks last year.  To address this question, let me expand on some points made in an insightful essay by Elliot Diringer, Vice President for International Strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

First, the Mexican government through careful and methodical planning over the past year prepared itself well, and displayed tremendous skill in presiding over the talks. Reflect, if you will, on the brilliant way in which Mexican Minister of Foreign Affairs, Patricia Espinosa, who served as President of COP-16, took note of the objections of Bolivia (and, at times, several other leftist and left-leaning Latin American countries, known collectively as the ALBA states), and then simply ruled that the support of 193 other countries meant that “consensus” had been achieved and the Cancun Agreements had been adopted by the Conference.  At a critical moment, Ms. Espinosa noted that “consensus does not mean unanimity,” and that was that!

Compare this with the unfortunate chairing of COP-15 in Copenhagen by Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, who allowed the objections by a similar same small set of five relatively unimportant countries (Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Sudan, and Venezuela) to derail those talks, which hence “noted,” but did not adopt the Copenhagen Accord in December, 2009.

The Mexicans were also adept at facilitating small groups of countries to meet to advance productive negotiations, but made sure that any countries could join those meetings if they wanted.  Hence, negotiations moved forward, but without the sense of exclusivity that alienated so many small (and some large) countries in Copenhagen.

The key role played by the Mexican leadership is consistent with the notion of Mexico as one of a small number of “bridging states,” which can play particularly important roles in this process because of their credibility in the two worlds that engage in divisive debates in the United Nations:  the developed world and the developing world.  We have examined this in our recent Harvard Project on Climate Agreements Issue Brief, Institutions for International Climate GovernanceMexico, along with Korea, are members of the OECD, but are also non-Annex I countries under the Kyoto Protocol.  This gives Mexico — and gave Minister Espinosa — a degree of credibility across the diverse constituencies in the UNFCCC that was simply not enjoyed by Danish Prime Minister Rasmussen at COP-15 last year.

Second, China and the United States set the tone for many other countries by dealing with each other with civility, if not always with understanding.  This contrasts with the tone that dominated in and after Copenhagen, when finger-pointing at Copenhagen between these two giants of the international stage led to a blame-game in the months after the Copenhagen talks.

As Elliot Diringer wrote, they may have recognized that “the best way to avoid blame was to avoid failure.”  Beyond this, although the credit must go to both countries, the change from last year in the conduct of the Chinese delegation was striking.  It appeared, as Coral Davenport wrote in The National Journal, that the Chinese were on a “charm offensive.”  Working in Cancun on behalf of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, I can personally vouch for the tremendous increase from previous years in the openness of members of the official Chinese delegation, as well as the many Chinese members of civil society who attended the Cancun meetings.

Third, a worry hovered over the Cancun meetings that an outcome perceived to be failure would lead to the demise of the UN process itself.  Since many nations (in particular, developing countries, which made up the vast majority of the 194 countries present in Cancun) very much want the United Nations and the UNFCCC to remain the core of international negotiations on climate change, that implicit threat provided a strong incentive for many countries to make sure that the Cancun talks did not “fail.”

Fourth, under the pragmatic leadership of UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres, realism may have finally eclipsed idealism in these international negotiations. Many observers have noted that many delegations – and probably most civil society NGO participants – at the previous COPs have misled themselves into thinking that ambitious cuts in greenhouse gases (GHGs) were forthcoming that could guarantee achievement of the 450 ppm/2 degrees C cap.

The acceptance of the Cancun Agreements suggests that the international diplomatic community may now recognize that incremental steps in the right direction are better than acrimonious debates over unachievable targets.  This harkens back to what I characterized prior to COP-16 as the key challenge facing the negotiators:  to continue the process of constructing a sound foundation for meaningful, long-term global action.  In my view, this was accomplished in Cancun.

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Further Reading

In a new blog post, Trevor Houser (Peterson Institute for International Economics) argues that the surest way to kill the progress made in the Cancun Agreements is to try to turn them into a legally-binding treaty at COP-17 next year in Durban, South Africa.

For a nice table showing the correspondence of respective elements of the Cancun Agreements and the Copenhagen Accord, see the commentary on the Cancun climate negotiations by Sarah Ladislaw of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

And for a detailed description of the major elements of the Cancun Agreements, I recommend the summary prepared by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

Some previous essays I have written and posted at this blog may be of interest to those who are interested in the Cancun Agreements.  Here are links, in reverse chronological order:

Defining Success for Climate Negotiations in Cancun

Opportunities and Ironies: Climate Policy in Tokyo, Seoul, Brussels, and Washington

Another Copenhagen Outcome: Serious Questions About the Best Institutional Path Forward

What Hath Copenhagen Wrought? A Preliminary Assessment of the Copenhagen Accord

Chaos and Uncertainty in Copenhagen?

Only Private Sector Can Meet Finance Demands of Developing Countries

Defining Success for Climate Negotiations in Copenhagen

Approaching Copenhagen with a Portfolio of Domestic Commitments

Can Countries Cut Carbon Emissions Without Hurting Economic Growth?

Three Pillars of a New Climate Pact

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Defining Success for Climate Negotiations in Cancun

International climate negotiations will continue in Cancun, Mexico, during the first two weeks of December, 2010.  These will be the Sixteenth Conference of the Parties (COP-16) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  The key challenge is to continue the process of constructing a sound foundation for meaningful, long-term global action, not necessarily some notion of immediate, highly-visible triumph.  Some of the gloom-and-doom predictions we’ve been hearing about these upcoming negotiations are therefore misguided, because they are based upon unreasonable – and fundamentally inappropriate – expectations (despite the fact that expectations have been lowered dramatically since COP-15 in Copenhagen last year).

Keeping Our Eyes on the Prize

Why do I say that the best goal for the Cancun 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) 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, massive technological change is the key to the needed transition from reliance on carbon-intensive fossil fuels to more climate-friendly energy sources.  Long-term price signals (most likely from government policies) will be needed to inspire such technological change.

Fourth and finally, the creation of long-lasting international institutions is central to addressing this global challenge.

For all of these reasons, international climate negotiations will be an ongoing process, not a single task with a clear end-point.  Indeed, they may well proceed much as international trade talks have done, that is, with progress over many years, building the institutions (the GATT, the WTO), but moving forward in fits and starts, at times seeming to move backward, but making meaningful progress in the long term.

So, the bottom-line is that a sensible goal for the international negotiations in Cancun is progress on a sound foundation for meaningful long-term action, not some notion of immediate “success.”

Don’t Sacrifice Valuable Long-Term Achievements for Minor Short-Term Gains

It might be relatively easy, but actually quite unfortunate, for countries to achieve what some people might define as “success” in Cancun:  a signed international agreement, followed by glowing press releases.  I say it would be unfortunate, because such an agreement could only be the Kyoto Protocol on steroids: more stringent targets for the original list of industrialized countries (Annex I) and no meaningful commitments by the key rapidly-growing emerging economies, such as China, India, Brazil, Korea, Mexico, and South Africa.

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.

What Would Constitute Real Progress in Cancun?

If it’s not reasonable to expect that a comprehensive post-Kyoto policy architecture will be identified and enacted in Cancun, what would constitute real progress?

1.  Embracing Parallel Processes

A significant step forward would be for the UNFCCC to embrace the parallel processes that are carrying out multilateral discussions (and in some cases, negotiations) on climate change policy:  the Major Economies Forum or MEF (a multilateral venue for discussions – but not negotiations – outside of the UNFCCC, initiated under a different name by the George W. Bush administration in the United States, and continued under a new name by the Obama administration, for the purpose of bringing together the most important emitting countries for candid and constructive discussion and debate); the G20 (periodic meetings of the finance ministers – and sometimes heads of government – of the twenty largest economies in the world); and various other multilateral and bilateral organizations and discussions.

By the way, the MEF includes Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, the European Union, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The membership of the G20 is the same as the membership of the MEF, plus Argentina, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.

The previous leadership of the UNFCCC seemed to view the MEF, the G20, and most other non-UNFCCC forums as competition – indeed, as a threat.  Fortunately, the UNFCCC’s new leadership under Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres (appointed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in May of this year) has displayed a considerably more positive and pragmatic attitude toward these parallel processes.

2.  Consolidating Negotiations Tracks

There are now three major, parallel processes operative:  first, the UNFCCC’s KP track (negotiating national targets for a possible second commitment period – post-2012 – for the Kyoto Protocol); second, the LCA track (the UNFCCC’s negotiation track for Long-term Cooperative Action, that is, a future international agreement of undefined nature); and third, the Copenhagen Accord, negotiated and noted at COP-15 in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December, 2009.  Consolidating these three tracks into two tracks (or better yet, one track) would be another significant step forward.

One way this could happen would be for the LCA negotiations to take as their point of departure the existing Copenhagen Accord, which itself marked an important step forward by blurring for the first time (although not eliminating) the unproductive and utterly obsolete distinction in the Kyoto Protocol between Annex I and non-Annex I countries.  (Note that more than 50 non-Annex I countries now have greater per capita income than the poorest of the Annex I countries.)

In particular, the UNFCCC principle of  “common but differentiated responsibilities” could be made meaningful through 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.

At the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements — a multi-national initiative with some 35 research projects in Australia, China, Europe, India, Japan, and the United States — we have developed a variety of architectural proposals that could make these dual principles operational.  (See, for example:  “Global Climate Policy Architecture and Political Feasibility: Specific Formulas and Emission Targets to Attain 460 PPM CO2 Concentrations” by Valentina Bosetti and Jeffrey Frankel; and “Three Key Elements of Post-2012 International Climate Policy Architecture” by Sheila M. Olmstead and Robert N. Stavins.)

3.  Productive Steps in Narrow, Focused Agreements, such as REDD+

A third area of success at the Cancun negotiations could be realized by some productive steps with specific, narrow agreements, such as on REDD+ (Reduced Deforestation and Forest Degradation, plus enhancement of forest carbon stocks).  Other areas where talks are moving forward, although somewhat more slowly, are finance and technology.

4.  Maintaining Sensible Expectations and Developing Effective Plans

Finally, it is important to go into the Cancun meetings with sensible expectations and thereby effective plans.  Again, negotiations in this domain are an ongoing process, not a single task with a clear end-point.  The most sensible goal for Cancun is progress on a sound foundation for meaningful long-term action, not some notion of immediate triumph.  The key question is not what Cancun accomplishes in the short-term, but whether it helps put the world in a better position five, ten, and twenty years from now in regard to an effective long-term path of action to address the threat of global climate change.

Further Reading

A number of previous essays I have written and posted at this blog will be of interest to those who wishe to follow developments at the Sixteenth Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Cancun.  Here are links, in chronological order:

Three Pillars of a New Climate Pact

Can Countries Cut Carbon Emissions Without Hurting Economic Growth?

Approaching Copenhagen with a Portfolio of Domestic Commitments

Defining Success for Climate Negotiations in Copenhagen

Only Private Sector Can Meet Finance Demands of Developing Countries

Chaos and Uncertainty in Copenhagen?

What Hath Copenhagen Wrought? A Preliminary Assessment of the Copenhagen Accord

Another Copenhagen Outcome: Serious Questions About the Best Institutional Path Forward

Opportunities and Ironies: Climate Policy in Tokyo, Seoul, Brussels, and Washington

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Who Killed Cap-and-Trade?

In a recent article in the New York Times, John Broder asks “Why did cap-and-trade die?” and responds that “it was done in by the weak economy, the Wall Street meltdown, determined industry opposition and its own complexity.”  Mr. Broder’s analysis is concise and insightful, and I recommend it to readers.  But I think there’s one factor that is more important than all those mentioned above in causing cap-and-trade to have changed from politically correct to politically anathema in just nine months.  Before turning to that, however, I would like to question the premise of my own essay.

Is Cap-and-Trade Really Dead?

Although cap-and-trade has fallen dramatically in political favor in Washington as the U.S. answer to climate change, this approach to reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions is by no means “dead.”

The evolving Kerry-Graham-Lieberman legislation has a cap-and-trade system at its heart for the electricity-generation sector, with other sectors to be phased in later (and it employs another market-based approach, a series of fuel taxes for the transportation sector linked to the market price for allowances).  Of course, due to the evolving political climate, the three Senators will probably not call their system “cap-and-trade,” but will give it some other creative label.

The competitor proposal from Senators Cantwell and Collinsthe CLEAR Act — has been labeled by those Senators as a “cap-and-dividend” approach, but it is nothing more nor less than a cap-and-trade system with a particular allocation mechanism (100% auction) and a particular use of revenues (75% directly rebated to households) — and, it should be mentioned, some unfortunate and unnecessary restrictions on allowance trading.

And we should not forget that cap-and-trade continues to emerge as the preferred policy instrument to address climate change emissions throughout the industrialized world — in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan (as I wrote about in a recent post).

But back to the main story — the dramatic change in the political reception given in Washington to this cost-effective approach to environmental protection.

A Rapid Descent From Politically Correct to Politically Anathema

Among factors causing this change were:  the economic recession; the financial crisis (linked, in part, with real and perceived abuses in financial markets) which thereby caused great suspicion about markets in general and in particular about trading in intangible assets such as emission allowances; and the complex nature of the Waxman-Markey legislation (which is mainly not about cap-and-trade, but various regulatory approaches).

But the most important factor — by far — which led to the change from politically correct to politically anathema was the simple fact that cap-and-trade was the approach that was receiving the most serious consideration, indeed the approach that had been passed by one of the houses of Congress.  This brought not only great scrutiny of the approach, but — more important — it meant that all of the hostility to action on climate change, mainly but not exclusively from Republicans and coal-state Democrats, was targeted at the policy du jour — cap-and-trade.

The same fate would have befallen any front-running climate policy.

Does anyone really believe that if a carbon tax had been the major policy being considered in the House and Senate that it would have received a more favorable rating from climate-action skeptics on the right?  If there’s any doubt about that, take note that Republicans in the Congress were unified and successful in demonizing cap-and-trade as “cap-and-tax.”

Likewise, if a multi-faceted regulatory approach (that would have been vastly more costly for what would be achieved) had been the policy under consideration, would it have garnered greater political support?  Of course not.  If there is doubt about that, just observe the solid Republican Congressional hostility (and some announced Democratic opposition) to the CO2 regulatory pathway that EPA has announced under its endangerment finding in response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Massachusetts vs. EPA.

(There’s a minor caveat, namely, that environmental policy approaches that hide their costs frequently are politically favored over policies that make their costs visible, even if the former policy is actually more costly.  A prime example is the broad political support for Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, relative to the more effective and less costly option of gasoline taxes.  Of course, cap-and-trade can be said to obscure its costs relative to a carbon tax, but that hardly made much difference once opponents succeeded in labeling it “cap-and-tax.”)

In general, any climate policy approach — if it was meaningful in its objectives and had any chance of being enacted — would have become the prime target of political skepticism and scorn.  This has been the fate of cap-and-trade over the past nine months.

Why is Political Support for Climate Policy Action So Low in the United States?

If much of the political hostility directed at cap-and-trade proposals in Washington has largely been due to hostility towards climate policy in general, this raises a further question, namely, why has there been so little political support in Washington for climate policy in general.  Several reasons can be identified.

For one thing, U.S. public support on this issue has decreased significantly, as has been validated by a number of reliable polls, including from the Gallup Organization.  Indeed, in January of this year, a Pew Research Center poll found that “dealing with global warming” was ranked 21st among 21 possible priorities for the President and Congress.  (It should be noted some polls are not consistent with these.)  This drop in public support is itself at least partly due to the state of the national economy, as public enthusiasm about environmental action has — for many decades — been found to be inversely correlated with various measures of national economic well-being.

Although the lagging economy (and consequent unemployment) is likely the major factor explaining the fall in public support for climate policy action, other contributing factors have been the so-called Climategate episode of leaked e-mails from the University of East Anglia and the damaged credibility of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) due to several errors in recent reports.

Furthermore, the nature of the climate change problem itself helps to explain the relative apathy among the U.S. public.  Nearly all of our major environmental laws have been passed in the wake of highly-publicized environmental events or “disasters,” ranging from Love Canal to the Cuyahoga River.

But the day after Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River caught on fire in 1969, no article in The Cleveland Plain Dealer commented that “the cause was uncertain, because rivers periodically catch on fire from natural causes.”  On the contrary, it was immediately apparent that the cause was waste dumped into the river by adjacent industries.  A direct consequence of the “disaster” was, of course, the Clean Water Act of 1972.

But climate change is distinctly different.  Unlike the environmental threats addressed successfully in past legislation, climate change is essentially unobservable.  You and I observe the weather, not the climate (note the dramatic difference of opinion about the reality of climate change between climatologists and television weathercasters).  Until there is an obvious and sudden event — such as a loss of part of the Antarctic ice sheet leading to a disastrous sea-level rise — it’s unlikely that public opinion in the United States will provide the bottom-up demand for action that has inspired previous Congressional action on the environment over the past forty years.

Finally, it should be acknowledged that the fiercely partisan political climate in Washington has completed the gradual erosion of the bi-partisan coalitions that had enacted key environmental laws over four decades.  Add to this the commitment by the opposition party to deny the President any (more) political victories in this year of mid-term Congressional elections, and the possibility of progressive climate policy action appears unlikely in the short term.

An Open-Ended Question

There are probably other factors that help explain the fall in public and political support for climate policy action, as well as the changed politics of cap-and-trade.  I suspect that readers will tell me about these.

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