30 October, 2009

Are we heading to a skeleton agreement for a piecemeal climate policy in Copenhagen?

Only 37 days before COP15 in Copenhagen, pragmatic proposals for a new framework agreement leaving detailing to be negotiated ex-post are gaining force.

Sergio Abranches

On October, 27th IPCC lead writer, economist Graciela Chichilnisky wrote on The Ecologist, that she reads “the smoke signals [about a Copenhagen deal] positively”.

“My prediction for Copenhagen is that nothing will happen until the 11½ hour. This is because the stakes are so high – involving the use of energy and the economic growth of nations – that no nation wants to move first. At the end, reaching a deal will focus everybody’s attention.”

On her view there will be “an agreement in principle – the details worked out over a year or so and a process agreed for this.”

Earlier, on May, Climate Policy, a blog project of the American Meteorological Society, published a post by economist Scott Barrett, of the  Johns Hopkins University International Policy Program, on “How to Prevent Climate Change Summit from Failure”, where he argues that:

“It is more realistic to aim to negotiate a skeleton agreement in time for Copenhagen, to save face, with the details being finished later—a Copenhagen bis agreement (bis is Latin for “a second time”). Though many people emphasize the need to act quickly, it is much more important that the US develop an institution that will work, a foundation for making incremental improvements over time.”

He contends that “there is a feedback between domestic negotiations in Washington, and the negotiations in Copenhagen and beyond.” Hence his focus on what the US negotiators should do to save the climate summit.

“My recommendation for the US would be to negotiate a skeleton agreement in time for Copenhagen, and follow up with supporting agreements focusing on individual gases, sectors, and R&D efforts. Success in Copenhagen should not be defined by setting goals that lack domestic support and that cannot be enforced but by laying a foundation for making incremental improvements over time.”

A recommendation that does not differ too much from Chichilnisky’s. But this coincidence of views is only partial, if not superficial. On her article, she also defends the maintenance of the Kyoto Protocol. She is co-author of the book Saving Kyoto. Her argument on why we should keep the Kyoto Protocol is a practical one:

“Why keep the Kyoto Protocol? We must bound global emissions and decrease carbon in the atmosphere – no matter what. Most people agree on this. But this is the first thing the Protocol does. So if we scrap the Kyoto Protocol we will have to start in the same place and do more of the same – so at the end we would have a Kyoto Protocol by another name. It took 13 years to negotiate the Kyoto Protocol. Why spend precious time reordering the chairs in the Titanic?”

I have written a piece defending the opposite position. That we should abandon the failed Protocol and work towards a new treaty. Graciela Chichilnisky doesn’t think Kyoto is a failed experience.

“The Kyoto treaty was faulted because greenhouse gas emissions rose under its auspices. But the rising emissions of the last 13 years came mostly from nations that never ratified the Protocol. The Protocol is not at fault for those who refused to obey its limits.”

She does, concede, however, that “Kyoto is only a start and requires improvements”. She also comments the difficulties, political, and geopolitical, the US faces to ratify Kyoto, she thinks could be overcome.

Scott Barrett holds a different view on Kyoto. He considers Kyoto be be both a failure and a risk.

“It is easier to define failure. Most climate watchers would define failure to mean lack of an agreement by states to “commit” to limiting their emissions dramatically. I would define failure to mean repeating the mistakes made in Kyoto in 1997. The worst outcome would be for the United States to “commit” to meet quantitative targets and timetables of emission reduction without being sure that these obligations will be approved by Congress.”

He doesn’t even think that targets and timetables are workable pieces of a viable treaty.

“Targets and timetables are also difficult to enforce. We know this because Kyoto established economy-wide targets and timetables and has been ineffective. This is the mistake we must not repeat.”

Scott Barrett prefers a mechanism more similar to the Montreal Protocol, that was far more effective in reducing CFC’s emissions.

“Montreal has several important features that are not shared by Kyoto. First, it not only limits production (like Kyoto); it also limits consumption (defined as production plus imports minus exports). Second, it not only requires industrialized countries to limit their emissions (like Kyoto), it requires developing countries to reduce their emissions, too. Third, while Kyoto’s limits apply for just five years, Montreal’s cuts are permanent. Fourth, under Montreal, industrialized countries finance compliance by developing countries.”

That’s why he prefers a series of ex-post supporting agreements focusing on individual gases, sectors, and R&D efforts.

“An alternative approach is to address these sectors at the global, rather than at the national, level. New technical standards should be negotiated, creating a new “level playing field.” These can then be implemented in the same way as the Montreal restrictions.”

Although disagreeing on what to do about Kyoto, and even on what did Kyoto really mean to the global endeavor towards and effective climate policy, they both point to a practical way to prevent failure in Copenhagen. To negotiate a political framework, leaving the operationalization and technical detailing for subsequent negotiations after Copenhagen. Some countries are already proposing a “Copenhagen 15.5”, an additional Copenhagen meeting in early 2010.

They may both be right about what appears to be possible to achieve in Copenhagen. Their very disagreement shows how far we are from solving what I called the Asimov Paradox. The Paradox tells us that to change a planet full of people either we get as broad a consensus as necessary, involving as many people, or if consensus fails, far more time for change must be allowed.

I’d like to see those who advocate piecemeal, incremental changes to be more explicit about the risks involved. I am not persuaded that we have the time necessary for policies gradual enough to elude the lack of consensus.

Yet, it doesn’t seem likely, even at the 11½ hour, that world leaders will be able to reach consensus on an ambitious, far-reaching new Protocol to replace Kyoto.

If a bold agreement becomes impossible, an even worse outcome would be to let Copenhagen fail outrightly as some are advocating. We can’t afford to begin again from the scratch. That would only consume time we don’t have. If it comes to a solution like Scott Barrett and Graciela Chichilnisky’s we should, at least, work towards two partial outcomes.

First, that the agreement includes some warranty that we’re not deciding only to muddle-through (Kyoto amounted to a muddling-through compromise). It should contain the terms necessary to achieve significant progress on the details on how to reduce GHG emissions and concentration on the atmosphere.

Second, that brainpower and money are invested in assessing the risks we are taking with an incremental solution, and how to best manage those risks.

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