Moonwalking from Copenhagen

The countdown to Copenhagen is ticking away toward the UN climate change conference to be held there in December billed as a ‘must succeed’ event to save the world from the fate of global warming and greenhouse gas emissions.

Do I sound skeptical?

There is a lot at stake in the outcome of this over-hyped Copenhagen conference but the risks are mostly that the assembled politicians will engage in short term political correctness at the expense of long term economic growth.  The good news is that there are enough conflicts among the countries participating that the real threat of consensus to do something stupid is fast diminishing as evidenced by the posturing going on to reduce expectations.

Reading the press clippings from the round of consultative meetings is akin to reading the gossip pages or watching coverage of a Hollywood event.  As a student of history I am reminded of the infamous quip from Alice Roosevelt who said, “Dear, if you have nothing nice to say about people, please sit next to me.”

So what is being said?

  • India Says Get Realistic. Environment Minister of India Jairam Ramesh laments that the Copenhagen delegates need to get realistic or the conference will face the same fate as the Doha Round of trade talks.  Interesting that he should make such a linkage because the implications of any agreement on enforceable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions on economic growth is the key issue dividing developed countries and fast growing developing countries.
  • Environmentalists Worry No Deal Will Be Reached. You can tell that this conflict is serious when the environmental groups complains about the lack of leadership going into Copenhagen necessary to reach agreement and worried that the talks might fail accuses the developed countries of EU and the US of continuing to “dodge the hard decisions on slashing their emissions and funding the transition to a low carbon economy.”[1]
  • China Leads Developing Countries in Rejecting Enforceable Targets. In Bangkok at a recent consultative meeting of those going to Copenhagen, frustrations spilled out on the table as China led 131 of the 180 countries at these advance climate talks in accusing the EU and US of “rejecting historical responsibilities” and trying to “fundamentally sabotage” the Kyoto protocol and the international negotiations over what will replace it.  Translation:  We the developing countries successfully avoided any accountability for our rapidly growing emissions in the Kyoto Protocol and we have no intention of allowing you EU and US “do-gooders” to force us into being accountable at Copenhagen for reducing our emissions especially if it slows our economic growth.
  • Sudan has the Audacity to Accuse Others of Not Taking Responsibility. Sudan chairs a group of emerging countries called the G77 at the talks. In Bangkok Sudan’s representative said that the rich countries want to “kill the protocol.”  Translation:  Leave us alone at Copenhagen like you did in Kyoto Protocol. We will not agree to any enforceable targets imposed on us.
  • We Don’t Have the Votes to Pass Waxman-Markey.  Carol Browner speaking for the US was forced to concede that there was no way the US Congress was going to pass this controversial bill before the Copenhagen event.[2] This was embarrassing for the Obama Administration which had hoped to have a bill signed by Copenhagen to wave in the face of the developing countries and complete the Obama apology tour for the US failure to sign onto Kyoto.

So the moon walking away from the Copenhagen cliff begins. . .

The Obama Administration says it wants an entirely new strategy to replace a legally binding world agreement with a voluntary one. This would be a big change from the Kyoto approach which set global emissions targets to a Copenhagen strategy of setting national targets.  For the EU this is blasphemy, but it likely is music to the ears of China, Brazil and India—-and no one cares what Sudan thinks anyway.

Ironically, after pillorying George Bush over rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, the Obama Administration now is proposing to scrap it completely in favor of what appears to be a self-policing set of national targets. The US risks being accused of undermining the Kyoto framework and its system of defining global emissions reduction targets by the Europeans and the environmental groups.  The issue between the US and EU involves how the national targets are set, but this can probably be finessed.

If the worst that emerges from Copenhagen is a set of fiery speeches about the horrors of global warming and emissions levels followed by a set of self defined and self enforced national emissions reduction “targets” that would be a good outcome.

It reflects another practical reality for President Obama—there is probably no way to get any Copenhagen Treaty—even a benign one approved by the US Senate in the run-up to the 2010 Congressional elections, and probably less chance after that.


[1] http://www.panda.org/?177782/Climate-talks-could-go-the-way-of-trade-talks-as-leaders-lose-nerve-WWF

[2] http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/oct/04/us-climate-change-bill-browner

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