Good Riddance to Copenhagen

Can we now try climate talks that actually have a chance of working?

That sound you'll hear in 2010 is a can being kicked down the road. Again. In the wake of the failure of the international negotiations in Copenhagen to reach a legally binding treaty to reduce greenhouse gases, you'll hear a lot of talk about how the world has two good chances in the new year to achieve what it failed to do at Copenhagen. Don't believe it.

Yes, we will have Copenhagen Redux during international negotiating sessions in June (probably in Bonn) and November (Mexico City). But these meetings are unlikely to achieve anything more than Copenhagen did. In the meeting that ended Dec. 18, despite all-night talks and an 11th-hour plea by President Obama, all we got was a "political" agreement, which is basically just a promise to keep talking and try really, really hard to agree to a treaty in 2010. Negotiators dropped the pretense that a binding accord would be reached next year, and a White House official conceded that the paltry accord "is not sufficient to combat the threat of climate change." The best chance of reining in emissions of greenhouse gases and avoiding dangerous climate change is to stamp a big green R.I.P. over the sprawling United Nations process that the Copenhagen talks were part of.

That's because developed countries are no more likely to work out their differences with developing countries before those 2010 meetings than they did before Copenhagen. Must China, India, and Brazil agree to legally binding, verifiable cuts in their carbon-dioxide emissions? How much will rich countries ante up to help poorer ones segue to noncarbon renewable-energy sources and adapt to rising seas, droughts, dwindling water supplies, and crop failures? Will countries have to accept international monitoring of their emissions, which drives China crazy? Rather than repeating the Copenhagen charade in 2010, then, it's time for creative destruction.

Accept that the 192 nations roped together by the U.N. will not agree on a meaningful climate treaty next year either. Drop the pretense that every country matters equally. Instead, set up bilateral talks and a "club" of the countries that do matter: a mere dozen account for almost all greenhouse emissions.

So argues David Victor of the School of International Relations at the University of California, San Diego, an expert on climate diplomacy. Victor predicted failure at Copenhagen months ago, which gives him some credibility in the crystal-ball department. Now, as he told me by phone, he believes that abandoning the all-inclusive U.N. process in favor of "clubs" of emitters, such as the 17-member Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, which President Obama launched in March, offers a much better chance of cutting greenhouse gases. "With a deal this complicated and difficult, the fewer countries you need to reach an agreement, the better the chances are," he says. (George W. Bush tried something like this too, but because his administration was so hostile to climate science, it never got anywhere.) Bilateral approaches such as those the United States is negotiating with China and India similarly have a better chance of achieving real greenhouse reductions than getting 192 countries to agree to anything.

Hence the silver lining in the failure of Copenhagen. "A well-managed disaster [at Copenhagen] could be as constructive as the collapse of the 1986 Reykjavik summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, which broke down in the final hours yet helped pave the way for later arms control," Victor wrote in Nature.

Not that even bilateral talks will be easy, given how much greenhouse emissions need to decrease. On the face of it, the promises of cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions that countries rich and poor made in the run-up to Copenhagen look impressive. From China, the world's largest annual emitter of greenhouse gases, a 45 percent cut in carbon intensity, which is the amount of carbon emitted per unit of GDP, by 2020. From India, the fifth-largest emitter, a 25 percent cut in carbon intensity. From the U.S., a 17 percent cut in emissions compared with 2005 levels by 2020. From the European Union, a 20 percent cut from 1990 levels by 2020. And from Japan, a 25 percent cut from 1990 levels by 2020.

At the risk of being the skunk at this party, I have to point out that these cuts, even if implemented, still doom us to significantly more global warming. For instance, under conservative projections of economic growth, China's emissions would actually rise between now and 2020. If its GDP doubles between 2005 and 2020, then a 45 percent cut in carbon intensity means a 10 percent increase in carbon-dioxide emissions over that period, calculates Jeffrey Cunningham, assistant professor of environmental engineering at the University of South Florida. If China's GDP triples, as it would if its recent 8 percent annual increases in GDP continue for 15 years, then the greenhouse emissions of what is already the world's leading emitter would soar 75 percent, finds Cunningham. The same is in store from India. Extrapolating from recent rates of economic growth, its emissions would rise 80 percent between now and 2020.

That means the world is likely to blow through the 2 degrees Celsius of warming relative to pre-industrial levels that the G8 pledged, in July, to stay below. Temperatures have already risen 0.75 degrees since the pre-industrial era, notes climatologist Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). As best climatologists can determine, to keep global warming below 2 degrees means keeping atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide below 450 parts per million (ppm)—though some scientists think 350 is dangerous. We're already at 387. "Letting concentrations rise to 450 ppm would give you even odds—that is, only a 50 percent chance—of staying below 2 degrees of warming," says Brian O'Neill of NCAR.

Calculations show that wealthy countries would need to reduce their greenhouse emissions 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 to keep us below 450 ppm. Their pledges bring the cuts to 12 to 17 percent. China, India, and the like would need to cut emissions 15 to 30 percent by 2020; pledges to date are for zero. (You can track pledges vs. goals at

No evaluation of the politics of climate change would be complete without checking in on the latest science. So let me highlight a paper in the current issue of Nature . Using measurements of ancient sea levels such as coral records and isotope data, scientists led by Robert Kopp conclude that the world's seas and ice sheets respond much more dramatically to warmer temperatures than had been thought. During the interglacial period 125,000 years ago, they report, when polar temperatures were 3 to 5 degrees Celsius warmer than today, global sea levels rose 21 feet, and possibly 26 feet. That would have been possible only if much of Greenland and the Antarctic ice sheets melted.

What does that mean for us? If global average temperatures rise 2 degrees Celsius, as the leading nations say they are content with, then polar temperatures (which rise more than the global average) would be comparable to what they were during that ancient warm spell. In other words, we are very likely to see a 20-foot rise in sea level, sometime this century, again. That would obliterate the homes of the 258 million people living within 16 feet of today's sea level, geoscientist Peter Clark of Oregon State University calculates for me. And if seas rise less? Some 145 million people live within just three feet of present sea level, he and Peter Huybers of Harvard point out in a commentary on the Nature study. For those of you who prefer your disasters denominated in dollars rather than lives, a three-foot-rise would wipe out $1.1 trillion in GDP annually.

With the emerging science on sea-level rise, it is becoming clearer that it isn't just the good people of the Maldives who will have to look for a new home. Even more reason to say good riddance to Copenhagen, and replace it with something that actually has a prayer of reining in dangerous climate change.