Saturday, December 19, 2009

Copenhagen Update: Broken Process

The U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen ended early this morning with delegates voting to “take note” of an agreement brokered by the U.S. that essentially establishes a system for third party verification of emissions and aid to developing countries. The final agreement did not establish binding emission reduction targets or even set a timeline for their completion. The vote to simply “take note of” – as opposed to approving – the agreement severely undercuts efforts by the Obama Administration to spin the agreement yesterday as unprecedented.

The Administration and other governments would be far better off being honest and admitting that the U.N. process is a failure that no amount of future talks can salvage. As noted in previous posts, the impasse is largely attributed to differences between developed and developing countries and the expectations for each under a new treaty. My main take away from this conference is that the U.N. process has simply become a forum for developing nations to extort money from developed nations under the guise of environmental protection and for traders who want to make millions of dollars in a new carbon market.

The President once again wasted an enormous amount of political capital for very little result. This agreement could have been hammered out by the Secretary of State and other foreign ministers while leaving the heads of state at home. Much of the stalemate came down to differences between the U.S. and China on issues like binding reductions, emissions verification and money. As this quote from the New York Times illustrates, the President is far more interested in a deal than the Chinese Premier: “Twice during the day, [Chinese Premier] Wen sent an underling to represent him at the meetings with Mr. Obama. To make things worse, each time it was a lower-level official.” The President needs to become a better negotiator with China on a whole range of issues.

The U.S. did float some interesting ideas over the two weeks to make China, India and other rapidly developing countries more accountable. One idea is to establish a new category of countries that captures this group and would not exempt them from making required reductions. This is crucial now that China is the largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions. Another is to demand third party verification, which was part of the final agreement though questions remain as to whether it will have enough teeth to be effective.

The President interrupted a meeting of the leaders from China, India, Brazil and South Africa to finally get his audience with Mr. Wen. While it is embarrassing they started without him, this meeting may offer a path to a future agreement and exerting leadership. Ever since the Kyoto Protocol established different expectations for developed and developing countries, true progress on global greenhouse gas emissions reductions has been difficult. As I have said, Kyoto is broken and using its framework to craft a successor agreement will be a failure, as these talks have illustrated. It may make more sense for the leaders of the top ten emitting countries, which account for approximately 70 percent of global emissions, to work out an agreement.

A new direction is required for any international treaty to be effective. A new agreement has to recognize the changes that have taken place since 1997. With the United Nations predicting that two-thirds of the expected growth in emissions between now and 2030 will come from developing countries, exempting these countries from mandatory reductions makes no sense. And any agreement should be about the environment and not redistributing money to other countries and Wall Street.

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