Climate Week: Don’t Celebrate Too Soon

The path to Copenhagen looks rockier than ever.

This is Climate Week here in New York City, so if you have been swept up in the excitement over Hugh Jackman's lending his celebrity to the cause of averting a catastrophic greenhouse effect ("people in developing countries have contributed the least to climate change and are suffering the most from it," he said at Monday's opening ceremony at the New York Public Library), or President Obama's speech at the United Nations Tuesday warning of “irreversible catastrophe" if the nations of the world do not cut carbon emissions, you might feel optimistic that the nations of the world will get their acts together enough to produce a climate treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol. Forgive me for being the skunk at this greenhouse-gas-enhanced garden party.

How tough are climate negotiations leading up to the meeting in Copenhagen, whose goal is to produce a binding treaty? Tony Blair, the former British prime minister who has recently worked with the nonprofit Climate Group to produce a report on the economic benefits of going low carbon, was painfully blunt. Climate negotiations, he said, are "at the most difficult end of the spectrum" of such international talks—and this from someone who "just spent the morning . . . discussing the Middle East peace negotiations." And then Blair uttered the phrase that I heard from at least four other diplomats this week: "don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good" when it comes to a climate treaty.

He is probably wise to lower expectations. Those of you with long memories will recall that President Clinton never sent the Kyoto accord to the U.S. Senate for ratification because its chances there were nil: Congress was on record opposing any binding treaty that did not require China, India and other up-and-coming large carbon sources to cut their greenhouse-gas emissions. Kyoto didn't, requiring such cuts only of what it called Annex 1 (wealthy) countries.

Will India and China agree to binding greenhouse cuts this time? Because of geography, topography, and poverty, those two countries (as I wrote in a recent column) stand to suffer more than many others from calamitous climate change. Yet at Monday’s Climate Week kickoff, Su Wei, who as China's director-general of climate change will lead its delegation in Copenhagen, said this: "We need to make sure progress on climate change is based on the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Treaty." Translation: just as Kyoto did not require China to commit to binding emissions cuts, Copenhagen better not either. And this: "For success in Copenhagen, developed countries need to provide financing to support developing countries, [and] agree to deeper emissions cuts." Translation: what we want out of Copenhagen is an agreement by which the developed world finances clean energy and climate adaptation in the developing world (which the UN estimates would be $500 billion to $600 billion every year for decades. And this: "I am confident we will achieve an equitable agreement in Copenhagen on the principle of equity." Whenever you hear China talk about "equity" in climate talks, you can safely translate it is as "you guys in the rich world caused this problem, so don't expect us to agree to cut our carbon emissions as part of any international treaty."

The only silver lining in this cloud is that China seems willing to make voluntary emissions cuts. But in his Tuesday speech to the U.N., President Hu Jintao vowed only to decrease China's "carbon intensity"—that is, the amount of carbon dioxide produced per unit of economic output. As economic output rises, therefore, so will CO2.

Jairam Ramesh, India's minister for environment, was only slightly more conciliatory. "It is in our interest to have an agreement in Copenhagen, because we are very vulnerable to climate change," he said. "India will not be found wanting in contributing to the international agreement to limit global temperature increases to 2 degrees C by 2020." That sounds encouraging, but he, too, made the "we didn't cause this mess" point, saying that India's "per capita emissions will always be less than the developed world's." (True, though when you have 1 billion capita, total emissions add up: India is now the fifth-largest emitter of carbon from the burning of fossil fuels.) And Ramesh also called for "the beginning of a financial [mechanism] to underwrite [low-carbon] energy technology," which means rich countries subsidizing renewables and the like in poor countries.

Whether the U.S. will sign an accord in Copenhagen if it does not require binding emissions cuts from China and India isn't the point. Unless the treaty is truly awful, it's hard to imagine Obama balking on an issue he has made a priority. But a signature doesn't cut carbon emissions. Only Senate ratification of a treaty can do that, and on that score we seem to be back in 1997, with a skeptical Congress unlikely to go for a treaty that requires the U.S. to commit to carbon cuts and to bankroll low-carbon technologies in the developing world. (For a sense of the Senate's mood, check out Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s proposal to prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating carbon-dioxide emissions from anything but "mobile sources"—that is, no power plants, no factories. Or note that the Senate has no companion bill to the House's Waxman-Markey climate change legislation, though Sen. John Kerry said yesterday that he was on the verge of introducing one.) No wonder chief U.S. negotiator Todd Stern said, "We must acknowledge that progress on [climate] negotiations has been slower than we'd like."