Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Copenhagen Protocol...

...ain't going to happen, at least not this December. They know this at the G-20 meetings taking place this week in Pittsburgh. Kim Carstensen of WWF suggests that,
“it’s “clear we aren’t going to get everything in Copenhagen,” and leaders should work on their “political messaging” so the gathering won’t be seen as a failure.
The UN conference on climate change that everyone has been anticipating will take place in Copenhagen this December 7th-18th (technically, the Conference of the Parties 15 of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change [COP15 of the UNFCCC]). There have even been giddy discussions about what to call the new agreement to be generated by the meetings. Should it be the "Copenhagen Protocol"? Or should it remain true to its origins and be called the "Kyoto Protocol II"? Or maybe "The Amazing Technicolor Climate Fantastic"?

Unfortunately, and even though many are still propagating the hope, it's looking increasingly unlikely that a final text will come out of Copenhagen. States have had over a decade since the Kyoto Protocol, with the clock ticking faster and faster, and agreement on the basics of the successor treaty is still a mess.

To give a quick background, the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997 and entered into force in 2005 after Russia ratified. The Protocol created binding targets for its Annex I parties (the main industrialized countries and the EU) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) globally by 5% using the baseline of 1990 levels, the reductions occurring over the 2008-2012 period. Emissions reduction rates vary among individual Annex I countries. 84 countries were original signatories in 1997, including the US, which had been heavily involved in drafting the agreement. A signature, however, is only a general non-binding commitment to a treaty. Ratification is the binding commitment to the treaty. As of August 2009, 189 countries comprising a total of 63.7% of all global emissions had both signed and ratified the protocol.

As for the two largest emitters... the US, of course, has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol, despite contributing about 29% of total global GHG emissions, by far the largest contribution to the problem. China has ratified but is not bound by any concrete commitments in the Kyoto Protocol, the idea being that China and other major developing countries would be phased into ensuing treaty rounds. China has recently surpassed the US as the largest overall GHG emitter on the planet, but still emits only about 25% per capita of US emissions per capita. Even though the country is making some inroads and the reality of global warming is now widely accepted, the US remains one of the very worst according to the Climate Change Performance Index. China is not a whole lot better as its economy is largely run on dirty coal. But I know firsthand that China is making serious strides towards a much greener, more sustainable future. While Rome burns and the US fiddles, China is at least rounding up water buckets.

The effects of climate change are already felt in various parts of the world and will increase in intensity and magnitude - rising sea levels and therefore coastal flooding, desertification, and biodiversity loss, and more intense and frequent hurricanes are only some of the more visible effects. People are little by little figuring out that the effects will run deep and broad, beyond what we've imagined (for one example of the latter, see here). The great tragedy of the problem of climate change is that those who are most vulnerable to its negative effects are also those who are least responsible for the problem: the poor, particularly in non-industrialized, least-developed countries. This reality is a major part of the deep moral imperative for the wealthy developed countries to act on climate change.

Upon taking office in 2001, however, Pres. Bush stated that the US would never accede to the protocol, withdrew the US from the agreement, and that was that. This decision, in my view, was mainly based on a myopic assessment of short-term economic costs and benefits. The debate over the reasons is laid out in an older post here (see also this post on the problem of climate change).

As of today, the EU is still trudgingly developing an increasingly sophisticated carbon market. A huge amount of time and resources is going into this from all corners of the globe. In the US, Pres. Obama earlier this year appointed a number of important scientific, technology, economic, and policy experts serious about tackling climate change to positions at EPA, DOE, OSTP, and elsewhere. The Obama administration is pushing more serious efforts on a number of fronts: scientific and technological, economic, policy-making, and moral analysis. For its part, China has been developing much stronger domestic environmental regulations, is vigorously pursuing renewable energy technology development, and is little by little giving birth to a genuine environmental ethic of its own. Everyone, now, wants a real agreement on climate change. One of the central obstacles, perhaps the most important, is the confused mess that is domestic environmental politics in the US. Obama and US environmental policy-makers have to manage the two-level game of doing both what's best and most feasible at the international level and, at the domestic level, tackling very different and often convoluted ideas of what's best and navigating the realities of political feasibility. Many politicians and media commentators in the US loudly deny climate change, confuse US citizens about the facts, probabilities, and responsibilities, and play the insidious game of seeking short-term corporate and political gains contrary to long-term human interests. The actions and words of this small minority of the American population affects not only US citizens but also the world....

The Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. It had been widely anticipated that the Copenhagen meeting would produce the new global treaty for tackling climate change that replaces and moves far beyond the Kyoto Protocol as a much more robust and effective agreement making a real dent in the problem. The US with its new administration and China with its rising environmentalism have both been making noises about offering genuine and deep commitments in the new global climate change treaty. Years of negotiations, workshops, conferences of the parties and meetings of the parties, summits like the G-20 and the December 2007 meeting in Bali, etc. would have culminated in the grand outline treaty finally hammered out in Copenhagen.

But... a finalized treaty text is not going to happen by Copenhagen. Even if there were agreement, a study released on Sunday shows that the aggregate of current country commitments doesn't come close to the minimum target of limiting global warming to 2˚C suggested by scientific consensus.

The study by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) states that by 2020, total GHG emissions of industrialized (Annex I) countries would decline by between only 5% and 17%, relative to 1990, depending on the conditions associated with the pledges.

The aggregate proposal falls short of the 25-40% range referred to by negotiating Parties in 2007. In particular, a reduction of only 5% would merely carry forward the Kyoto Protocol targets to the next decade.

...And do pretty much nothing since Kyoto's target of 5% global emissions reductions was always more symbolic of international cooperation than an actual physical mitigation of the problem. (Although the upside is that the cost to Annex I countries of their current offers would likely be less than expected, not exceeding "0.01-0.05% of the GDP of all Annex I countries" in the most generous reductions scenario of 17%).

This is all a round-about way of getting to my main not-terribly-profound point here. That is, the common, optimistic message that a full-blown agreement will emerge from Copenhagen is quite likely harmful in itself, leading to disappointment and to further disaffection regarding the capabilities and competence of the UN and, frankly, the world for accomplishing something vital to the world as a whole. In other words, pushing the message in the belief that this then places more pressure on states to come to a concrete agreement by December has political risks probably not worth the gamble.

Obviously, if we never get to an agreement, it'll all be for naught and we may as well admit that climate change adaptation, however costly, is the best we can do. But we also need to ensure that we end up with a truly robust agreement rather than another product of harried diplomats acting on the pressures of short-sighted economic and political self-interest.

Given the present realities on the ground, however, it's actually a positive development to hear the expectations-dampening messages on climate change coming out of the current G-20 meeting.

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