Copenhagen – as expected

Today’s NRC, a Dutch newspaper I like akin to the NYT, heavily criticized the Copenhagen meeting, and it was not alone. All major newspapers expressed dismay after the speeches held by Chinese prime-minister Wen Jiaboa and President Obama. I was not overly enthused by their speeches either. Both repeated mostly old statements, praised their own proposed steps forward, and accused the other of hampering global progress and signing of an effective Copenhagen treaty.

Wen expressed strong desire to keep to the Kyoto-protocol. He said it is essential that developed nations strongly reduce emissions, and that such emission reductions are mandated. Developing nations, however, should contribute only on a voluntary basis. This includes his own country China. His reasoning? Developing countries are simply not responsible for the onset of global warming and should not pay the price.

The US wants to set emission limits for developing countries also that are to be imposed by an international regulatory framework. Obama made it clear that there will be no additional concessions from the US. “This is the bottom line”, he said.

Before his speech, Obama met with Sarkozy (France), Merkel (Germany) and Brown (UK), amongst others, in a last minute effort to move things forward, but apparently to no avail. As I write this, negotations are still continuing. It is expected that the treaty will set a maximum allowable warming of two degrees. But, it is also expected that the proposed emission reductions will not add up to the necessary number, as agreed by the IPCC, to stay below this upper bound.

However, there are certainly some good developments to report on. Hilary Clinton promised the US would help establish a climate fund worth 100 billion dollars to help assist developing countries with necessary technologies to reduce GHG emissions. And China seems willing to now allow an independent international committee to audit its emissions.

These may be small steps, but history has shown that global climate initiatives are very hard to come by. I actually believe that a global treaty would not be the most desirable in any case. Climate solutions are inherently local. They are dependent on resources, on infrastructure, on trade, and of course on mutual benefits because nothing is driven solely by charity. Effective agreements that really may lower GHG emissions can be made, I believe, only at the regional or local scale: country with country; within existing trade organizations; within economic entities. Searching for a global compromise in a way may be actually ineffective: all goals will get diluted because there is simply not one recipe that works for everybody. So, goals and aspirations converge to the very lowest common denominator, and that is indeed rather low.

The real impact of Copenhagen is not measured now. Like with Kyoto it is measured in the years to come. Kyoto seemed disappointing but it did lead to more talk and more action within smaller groups.
There is an interesting paper on such dynamics by Keohane and Victor, titled “The Regime Complex for Climate Change”. The authors explain why efforts to regulate climate change have yielded narrowly focussed regulatory regimes rather than a comprehensive outcome.
They first observe that climate change is not a single problem but actually a series of distinct cooperation challenges with tight couplings. For example, the creation of successful emission trading programs is tightly linked to supplying funds needed to compensate reluctant developing countries that are wary about spending their own funds on global projects.
They go on to argue that successful cooperation despite incentives to defect usually hinges on the creation of private goods whose benefits can be concentrated on the countries and firms that make the first moves in building effective regulatory arrangements. These efforts are much more successful when numbers are small and issues are narrow. Experience selects only the few regulatory changes that deliver benefits to important players. And from players a regulatory regimes form “bottom up” rather than through an integrated, comprehensive original design.
The paper is especially interesting because it gives several good examples of effective changes that resulted from Kyoto.

So, I keep my hopes high. Copenhagen was as expected, no more and no less. The real benefit of the Copenhagen meeting can not be measured now, but in the coming year, at regional or national levels. In reducing emissions, “Think globally, act locally” certainly applies.

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