Negotiating the wrong treaty in Copenhagen?

William Moomaw

By Bill Moomaw,
Center for International Environment and Resource Policy
The Fletcher School
Tufts University 

The flailing around in Copenhagen has produced little in the way of a useful agreement. After wasting 15 years following the ratification of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the world discovered that an intensive two-year negotiations process has failed to bring about an effective solution even in an intense two-week finale. 

The governments of the world have failed their citizens, and it will be up to non-state actors like Clean Air-Cool Planet, the private sector, civil society, individuals and subnational actors such as states, provinces, cities and towns, to continue taking the lead in making real emission reductions.

Governments have been acting like a group of lost children who have wandered onto a major highway where a truck is bearing down on them. Instead of agreeing to help each other to get out of the way, they argue about whose fault it is that they are there, and who should pay whom to get out of the way. Meanwhile the truck has accelerated.

Perhaps we are trying to negotiate the wrong treaty. No one seems to want it.  The current discussion is about a “pollution control treaty.” It is all about what nations cannot do. The proposed solution is even less viable: an untried global cap-and-trade system that relatively few nations understand or see how they might participate.

While it is true that it is emissions of heat-trapping gases that are causing global warming and climate change, the underlying problem is the development path that all nations are on. It is literally fueled by fossil fuels that emit heat-trapping carbon dioxide. Developing countries mistakenly equate carbon dioxide emissions with energy and energy with a growing economy. Hence asking them to reduce their emissions is tantamount to restricting their development. Many in the US have the same flawed perspective. This has lead to absurd arguments about each individual having an equal right to pollute the atmosphere with the waste from combustion, transportation, industry and agriculture. No one is better off simply because he or she emits more carbon dioxide, and certainly the planet and all of human society is worse off from those emissions even if they are equitably distributed.

What is needed is a “development treaty” that assures every one access to energy and other services in a manner that does not threaten the climate system. Then the discussion will become about what can be done to improve the lives and well being of people and a debate about who will pay for the essential transition that inevitably awaits us as fossil fuels become less and less available. Then protocols could be written that introduce low emission vehicles, power plants and industrial and agricultural processes. Nations could also agree to raising the price of fossil fuels and other emissions to send a market signal that supports the specific policies and measures that are agreed upon. There would certainly be a need to assist developing countries in the transition, which would free them from the tyranny of rising and highly fluctuating fossil fuel prices. Helping to provide the technology to harvest the free renewable energy that rains down on all nations would be cheaper than continuing to chase rising fossil fuel prices with scarce hard currency.

It is not clear that it will be possible to shift the debate away from pollution and towards what can be done about it through a development treaty. However, it may well be simpler to design policies and measures that introduce low emission technologies than it will be to get agreement on taking specific targets and time tables that 193 countries can agree to. Moving from 19th century fuels and mid-20th century technologies is essential to meet the needs and improve the well being of nearly 7 (soon to be 9) billion people most of whom are poor.

Governments have failed to grasp the reality that the world must reduce emissions by close to 80% by 2050 to keep concentrations of carbon dioxide below 450 ppm and global temperatures from rising by more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). This requires an annual reduction of between 3 and 4% per year. It is important to note that this is about the rate at which the United States shifted from gas lights and horses and buggies to electric lights and automobiles in the first half of the 20th century. Currently the share of electricity production from renewable sources is about the same fraction as what US homes with electricity was 100 years ago. Why can’t we imagine a comparable transformation by 2050?

This transformation will require that a new development treaty places energy services into the hands of all in an efficient, clean, low-carbon manner. Maybe if we make this shift, we can get our leaders and all of us out of the way of the onrushing threat of uncontrolled climate change. Clean Air-Cool Planet will need to play a central role in this process. We certainly cannot wait for the US Senate or other governments to act.

Professor Moomaw is a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and a founding board member of Clean Air-Cool Planet.

Explore posts in the same categories: Climate, COP-15 in Copenhagen, Policy

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One Comment on “Negotiating the wrong treaty in Copenhagen?”

  1. roger Says:

    Bravo Dr. Moomaw! George Frampton who lead CEQ under Clinton, said in more than one staff meeting that the private sector would eclipse government action in many instances in the environmental arena. Lead follow or get out of the way.

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