Chaos and Uncertainty in Copenhagen?

Earlier today, I was asked by the Financial Times, “who is responsible for the chaos and uncertainty” at COP-15 in Copenhagen?  I’m not sure those are the words I would have chosen to characterize the situation at the climate negotiations in the Danish capital, but here is my response for the FT’s Energy-Source Climate Experts panel — with some elaboration.

There are two aspects to what has been characterized as the “chaotic and uncertain” nature of the COP-15 conference at the Bella Center in Copenhagen.  One is the substantive process and eventual outcome, which remains uncertain as of this hour, and the other is the shocking logistical failure.

An Uncertain Outcome for the Negotiations

It should not be surprising that the outcome remains in doubt, because of some basic economic realities.  First of all, keep in mind that climate change is the ultimate global commons problem, because greenhouse gases uniformly mix in the atmosphere.  Therefore, each country incurs the costs of its emission-reduction actions, but the benefits of its actions are spread worldwide.  Hence, for any individual nation, the benefits it receives from its actions are inevitably less than the costs it incurs, despite the fact that globally the total benefits of appropriate coordinated international action would exceed the total costs (and for many countries the national benefits of coordinated international action would exceed their national costs of action).

This creates a classic free-rider problem, and is the reason why international cooperation – whether through an agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change or through some other multilateral or bilateral arrangements – is necessary.

Second, addressing global climate change will be costly and it raises profound distributional implications for the countries of the world.  In particular, addressing climate change at minimum cost (i.e., cost-effectively) requires that all countries take responsibility for their emissions going forward, and indeed necessitates that all countries control at the same marginal abatement cost.

On the other hand, addressing climate change in an equitable fashion clearly requires taking account of the dramatically different economic circumstances of the countries of the world, and may also involve looking backwards at historic responsibility for the anthropogenic greenhouse gases which have already accumulated in the atmosphere.   These are profound issues of distributional equity.

This classic trade-off between cost-effectiveness (or efficiency), on the one hand, and distributional equity, on the other hand, raises significant obstacles to reaching an agreement.

So, I place the fault for the substantive uncertainty in the negotiations neither on the industrialized countries (including the United States, for insisting that China and other key emerging economies participate in meaningful and transparent ways), nor on the developing countries (for insisting that the industrialized world pay much of the bill).

The key question going forward is whether negotiators in Copenhagen today and tonight, or in Bonn several months from now, or in Mexico City a year from now, can identify a policy architecture that is both reasonably cost-effective and sufficiently equitable, and thereby can assemble support from the key countries of the world, and thus do something truly meaningful about the long-term path of global greenhouse gas emissions.  There are promising paths forward, and – if you’ll forgive me – I will remind readers that many have been identified by the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements.

Rather than pointing fingers at who is to blame for the current uncertainty at this hour, I can attribute credit to a number of countries and institutions for having brought the negotiations to the point where it appears at least possible that a successful outcome will be achieved in Copenhagen or subsequently.

First of all, tremendous credit must be given to the national leaders and the negotiating teams of the seventeen major economies of the world who together represent about 90% of global emissions, because these countries have worked hard to produce what each considers a sensible outcome over the months and years leading up to COP-15.

This includes not only the European Union, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and Canada, but also the United States, which at least since January of this year has been an enthusiastic and intelligent participant in this international process.  It also includes many of the key emerging economies of the world – China , India, Brazil, Mexico, Korea, South Africa, and Indonesia, among them – as well as a considerable number of poor, developing countries, which likewise take the problem seriously and have been trying to find an acceptable path forward.

Finally, credit should be given to the Danish government and its leadership, the Secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who have worked tirelessly for months, indeed years, to prepare for the substance of these negotiations at COP-15 in Copenhagen.

That’s the “good news,” but now I should turn to the other aspect of the “uncertainty and chaos” in Copenhagen.

Chaos at COP-15’s Bella Center

As I noted at the outset, there are two aspects of the “chaos” in Copenhagen, and for the second aspect it is (sadly) possible to identify the apparently responsible parties.  I am referring to the fact that the organizers – the Secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the hosts, the Danish government – apparently approved a list of some 40,000 observers from 900 official, accredited organizations around the world, knowing that the Bella Center could accommodate at most 15,000 persons at any one time.  The result is that thousands of people – including not only NGO representatives, but also government negotiators – stood in line outside of the Bella Center in the bitter cold on Monday and Tuesday of this week waiting 8-10 hours to get inside to receive their credentials.  Thousands of others never got inside to receive their credentials, despite having waited up to 8 hours, standing in the cold.  These are not exaggerations.  It is remarkable and very fortunate if no one died in the process.

Then, on Wednesday through Friday, the Bella Center was essentially closed to all representatives of civil society, despite the fact that side-events had been organized by them months in advance with the approval of the COP-15 organizers.

The result is that thousands of people, who had been informed by the COP-15 organizers many months ago that they were approved to attend, had flown to Copenhagen from all over the world, incurred those costs plus the costs of their accommodations, yet never were able to get inside the Bella Center to carry out any of the work they had planned, and flew back home having wasted their time and resources (and having contributed to the COP-15 carbon footprint in non-trivial ways).

Now, I have never been an enthusiast of what some people have described as the annual “circus” of the COPs, a circus – if it is that — which is largely due to the fact that the actual government negotiators are vastly outnumbered by the civil society representatives (“official observers” in the UNFCCC language) and the press.  However, if the participation of civil society representatives is going  to be encouraged (as required under the original UNFCCC agreement), and if the attendance of those representatives is going to be approved in advance, then surely they should not be denied admission when they arrive, nor forced to stand in line outside in the cold for 8 hours waiting to be admitted.

No doubt, both the UNFCCC and the Danish government will point fingers at the other, but ultimately the responsibility must be shared.  In seventeen years of these annual conferences, going back to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, there has never been such a disastrous logistical failure.  It could have been anticipated.  And it should have been prevented.

A Final Word

Of course, as of this hour, I — along with millions of others — hope that the negotiators in Copenhagen will achieve agreement on some truly meaningful steps forward in this important process.


Defining Success for Climate Negotiations in Copenhagen

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.