Rethinking carbon diplomacy

September 22, 2009

Climate change was initially billed in a leading role at the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh. Now it looks set to make the briefest of cameo appearances.

Nonetheless, the gathering offers a crucial chance to recast the talks. The United Nations carbon process is in deep trouble and desperately needs help from the top. If the G20 heads of government want to avoid embarrassment at the Copenhagen Summit, they need to start to steer the talks in a new direction.

The first step is to move away from the flawed Kyoto model on which the talks are based. Haggling over overall emissions caps is unproductive. Nations have an incentive to push for targets that are easy to hit — giving themselves plenty of headroom in the event of faster economic growth.

Even then, it is hard to check up on compliance, since countries like China and India lack the ability to track their emissions.

And not much happens to countries that blow through their targets. Canada will surpass its Kyoto limit by close to a third. Yet this failure has clearly not turned Canada into an international pariah.

World leaders should set aside this failed framework. One way of doing so is to move toward energy efficiency goals — targeting emissions per unit of GDP. Recasting the debate in this way would reassure developing nations that climate talks would not infringe on their right to grow.

Blunt overall targets punish nations with vibrant economies and growing populations while rewarding those with a dwindling workforce. Europe was able to breeze through the Kyoto test partly because of the collapse of the Eastern bloc in the 1990s.

China has already moved toward targeting the carbon intensity of economic growth, a position outlined today by President Hu Jintao. The concept may have been tarnished when George W. Bush — the nemesis of environmentalists worldwide — used efficiency measures to throw a spanner in the works.

But if set at far more ambitious levels than Bush envisaged, efficiency targets would make much more sense. Leaders should also reconsider shifting the base year for reductions from 1990 — an arbitrary date based around the setting up of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Resetting the start date to 2005 would better reflect any efforts by China and India, whose emissions have rocketed since 1990.

More important still, climate diplomacy needs to descend from the clouds. Nations are far more likely to agree to a series of detailed policies rather than inflexible and grandiose targets. It would also be much easier to monitor compliance and hold leaders responsible.

Rich nations would be more willing to stump up cash to promote efficiency if they had a clearer idea where the money would be used.

“India’s plan, for example, might include efforts to harness its IT know-how to build a smart-grid and use electricity more efficiently,” notes Michael Levi, a climate expert at the Council on Foreign Relations

In Brazil, where most emissions come from deforestation, there need to be concrete plans to discourage clearance, by promoting greater productivity among ranchers, providing secure titles to land and offering alternative economic opportunities.

China could be given greater help achieving its bold efficiency targets. Assistance from the United States in ensuring access to uranium could increase China’s willingness to ramp up nuclear output, some experts argue.

This more granular approach offers the best hope of rescuing the climate change talks, which are starting to bear an alarming resemblance to the interminable global trade round.

A more detailed agreement might be harder to market as a triumph to voters than a grand accord. But to come out of Copenhagen empty-handed risks creating the impression that the process is a lost cause.


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