A Challenge for Climate Negotiators, and an Opportunity for Scholars

As I have written in many previous essays at this blog, the challenges standing in the way of an effective international climate change agreement are numerous and severe.  It is also true that the prospects for a truly meaningful deal may be better now than at any time in the past decade or more.  That is the theme of a new article I’ve co-authored with my Harvard Kennedy School colleague, Joseph Aldy.  The article, “Climate Negotiators Create an Opportunity for Scholars,” was published in the August 31st edition of Science.

Changes emerged gradually from the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate in 2009, the Copenhagen Accord (2009), the Cancun Agreements (2010), and – most important – the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (2011).  Together these have now increased the likelihood that the ongoing negotiations can move beyond the debilitating Annex I/non-Annex I dichotomy of the Berlin Mandate (1995), as codified in the Kyoto Protocol (1997); and instead develop a comprehensive legal regime for implementation in 2020 that includes all key countries, based upon a more nuanced and effective interpretation of the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” from the original United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, 1992).

In our Science article, Joe Aldy and I trace this history and describe several potential international climate policy architectures that could be consistent with the process and principles laid out in both the Durban Platform and the UNFCCC.  Our article is very brief, and so rather than trying to summarize it here, I encourage you to follow this link to read the essay in its entirety.

The negotiating teams are now tasked under the Durban Platform with identifying a new comprehensive policy architecture by 2015 (for 2020 implementation).  The negotiators are therefore hungry for new ideas, in particular for outside-the-box thinking.  This presents an important opportunity for researchers in universities, think tanks, and advocacy groups around the world.


Author: Robert Stavins

Robert N. Stavins is the A.J. Meyer Professor of Energy & Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, Director of Graduate Studies for the Doctoral Program in Public Policy and the Doctoral Program in Political Economy and Government, Co-Chair of the Harvard Business School-Kennedy School Joint Degree Programs, and Director of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.

5 thoughts on “A Challenge for Climate Negotiators, and an Opportunity for Scholars”

  1. This brief comment does not deal with any specificities but would like to highlight three issues that must be used as guidelines for any proposal if the said proposal is to be effective in dealing with the problem of climate change.
    (1) Carbon emissions present a global challenge, a true trans-boundary problem. The ultimate effect of carbon concentration is not related to its geographic place of emission.

    (2)Whatever program we wind up with the total world carbon emissions must reflect substantial reductions phased in over a relatively short period of time. Cosmetic reductions will be meaningless.

    (3)States have an aversion to altruistic behaviour and that will doom any plan that does not view the problem and its proposed solution as universal in its implications. All must act as one otherwise the principle of the tragedy of the commons will prevail and the outcome will be tragic for all.

    Unless the above issues of universal action, and substantially lower emissions from all players are adopted then the proposed solution is not likely to be effective. Actually it will be a waste of time and resources.

  2. Professor Stavins,

    The above post and the article on which it is based assume the ongoing need to reduce global annual carbon emissions to avoid catastrophic anthropogenic climate change. This ongoing need has been under increasingly intense discussion for the past 30+ years, since the concerns of the environmental activist community shifted from global cooling to global warming and, more recently, to global climate change.

    The US alone has spent more than $100 billion on climate change related RDD&D.
    The world community has had numerous meetings, including 17 COPs, and has justified 8 additional COPs to be held through 2020, by which time it hopes to have some sort of agreement to do something of significance over some future time frame which would be acceptable to all of the participants; and, hopefully, would accomplish something meaningful with regard to avoiding CAGW.

    However, I believe it is significant that, while the national negotiators have agreed to little other than future “junkets”, the climate science community has not established a commonly accepted GOAL which must be achieved, nor established a commonly accepted PLAN to accomplish that goal over some essential TIME FRAME. This causes me to question whether this “settled science” is actually “unsettled”, which I find somewhat “unsettling”.

    I believe it is “intuitively obvious to the casual observer” that the first logical step in any process of reducing global annual carbon emissions is reducing and then eliminating the growth of global annual carbon emissions. That growth is currently occurring overwhelmingly among the developing countries of Asia. The rapid construction and commissioning of new coal-fired power plants with 40-60 year operating lives would almost inevitably lead to even higher global annual emissions well into this century.

    Meanwhile, the passage of time has demonstrated the inaccuracies of the GCMs on which the concerns regarding CAGW have been based. The absence of statistically significant warming over the past ~15 years, in the face of increasing global annual carbon emissions, has raised further questions regarding the “skill” of the models.

    A recent paper (Investigation of methods for hydroclimatic data homogenization
    Steirou, E., and D. Koutsoyiannis, Investigation of methods for hydroclimatic data homogenization, European Geosciences Union General Assembly 2012, Geophysical Research Abstracts, Vol. 14, Vienna, 956-1, European Geosciences Union, 2012.) suggests that approximately half of the reported rise in global annual temperatures over the past 100 years is the result of adjustments to the temperature data, rather than actual temperature increases.

    Dr. James Hansen of NASA GISS believes that global annual anthropogenic carbon emissions must be reduced to zero to avoid CAGW. I estimate that the investments required to eliminate anthropogenic carbon emissions from the US would be ~$30 trillion. The investments required to eliminate global carbon emissions would be ~$150 trillion, much of which would be funded by the developed countries, both in their own economies and in the currently developing and currently undeveloped economies. That would constitute a very expensive insurance policy against the risks of a potential, though ill-defined, future hazard.

    This situation brings to mind two quotations from my favorite American philosopher, Yogi Berra:
    “You’ve got to be careful, if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might end up someplace else.”; and,
    “Predictions are very hard, especially about the future.”

  3. I have read your article in Science, which is clearly an important and constructive contribution to the scholarly agenda – and I hope to the negotiating agenda as well. I am responding in particular to the brief allusions in it to trade issues; I would like to expand on ways scholars and diplomats could figure out whether and how to fit trade-climate interaction issues into the international climate and trade architectures. May I suggest five potentially fruitful research streams: (1) Your reference to the relationship between bilateral and multilateral trade agreements is a reminder that scholars and negotiators involved in the development of the climate regime could learn a lot from the half-century-plus history of the development of the multilateral trade regime. It is a potentially rich topic for renewed research interest. (2) Your references to participation and compliance incentive issues are a reminder that linkages between the climate and trade regimes offer many opportunities that have not yet been explored – either analytically or diplomatically. The stakes for both regimes are enormous, but that should not make us shy away from exploration of their possibilities and implications. Indeed, the serious of the issues should prompt greater attention to them. (3) A set of trade-climate interaction that have been getting attention from both scholars and diplomats is the potential development of Sustainable Energy Trade Agreements (SETAs) that would liberalize and otherwise address trade and investment policies in order to make them more climate-friendly, especially by facilitating international transfers of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies. The recent APEC Leaders’ Vladivostok Declaration advances that agenda among the 21 APEC economies, and much analytic work on those issues is being done at the International Centre for Trade and Development (ICTSD) in Geneva. (4) Recent China-US and other trade disputes, some of which are currently in the formal WTO dispute settlement process, are a reminder that trade-climate policy interactions can put governments’ renewable energy and energy efficiency support policies at risk. These issues need more attention by climate specialists as well as trade specialists. (5) Finally, there is still the cluster of issues concerning carbon leakage, international climate agreement free riders and the use of offsetting border measures – a set of issues that becomes more timely as more countries (and states and provinces) move ahead with plans to establish emissions trading regimes. Of course there are already several bodies of relevant literature produced by many scholars over the past decade and more, and they can surely be helpful in addressing the trade-climate interaction issues. However, since we are now in a new diplomatic context as you point out, I think trade-climate interaction issues need fresh attention – from trade and climate scholars and from trade and climate negotiators.

  4. Economists don’t know how to measure the true rate of economic growth, because they can’t model the consumer’s perspective on technological advancement. Alex Gheg has released a new framework that can solve this problem. The hidden thoughts and feelings of people can be indirectly measured using the very accurate internal body clock, that we all have. Pleasure contracts time in the human mind, and we can see how this changes our daily circadian rhythms. See some facts and be amazed. Quantity, quality, variety and convenience in one equation. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6tFLGpcOpE

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