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The Key to Cancún

Author: Michael A. Levi, David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment and Director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change
November 29, 2010
Wall Street Journal

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As the United Nations climate talks open today in Cancún, here's my advice for Washington: Stop focusing on China.

If fact, I'd go a step beyond that, and suggest the U.S. focus on everyone but China--and in particular China's partners in the Basic climate-negotiating bloc: India, South Africa and Brazil. Indeed, that may be the best way to move Beijing.

The U.S. has two main goals in Cancún: It wants to reinforce an international agreement on climate change that entails comparable efforts from all major greenhouse-gas emitters, and avoid getting blamed if the talks are seen to fail.

China is a critical barrier to achieving both. Beijing continues to demand that all developed countries, including the U.S., adopt legally binding international obligations to cut their own emissions, while insisting that all others, including China, be exempt.

Meanwhile, China and the U.S.--the two largest emitters in the world--will each try to paint the other as the biggest obstacle to progress. If the talks end in acrimony, but China wins the image fight, the U.S. will lose, with broader consequences for its standing and influence.

Focusing on everyone but China would help address both problems. The climate talks last year in Copenhagen concentrated heavily on what Washington and Beijing would get out of an agreement. That left other countries wondering what the impact on them would be. Little wonder they balked, making progress far more difficult.

Instead, by spending more time engaging with others, the U.S. could reduce such uncertainty and win greater backing. What's more, by potentially isolating China, it would also put more pressure on Beijing to accede to U.S. preferences. At the same time, it would make others more likely to blame China, rather than the U.S., if the talks failed.

Start With the Basics

So how can the U.S. can get from here to there? Such a strategy should start with China's partners in the Basic bloc. By negotiating as a unit, China can hide behind the needs of its bloc partners in a way it never could if it was negotiating on its own.

For instance, when negotiators insist that wealthy Chinese industrialists have a responsibility to curb their emissions, Beijing can point to the poor masses without electricity in its partner India. (The average Indian is responsible for about a third the emissions of the average Chinese.) Similarly, when China came under attack in Copenhagen for opposing a U.S. push to increase transparency, Beijing was able to let the Indian environment minister respond, "Are you worried China and India will make up our figures?" (The unspoken retort: No, we're not worried that India will.)

Brazil and South Africa, meanwhile, broaden the group's geographical appeal. Beijing is concerned about its image across Africa, where it has a host of investments in resources and infrastructure. When African leaders blame the U.S. for damage that its emissions are inflicting on the continent, Beijing, through its partnership with Pretoria, can assert solidarity.

To weaken the coalition, the U.S. should help each Basic country get what it wants without having to toe the Chinese line.

Most important, New Delhi fears that Washington and Beijing will cut a deal that imposes intolerable burdens on it. But such action is not in the cards, given the depth of disagreement between Washington and Beijing. The U.S. should publicly reassure India that it will not abandon it.

Moreover, unlike China, which has erected barriers to trade and foreign investment in its clean-energy sector, India has adopted a largely positive approach to commercial clean-energy cooperation. The U.S. should reward that with closer cooperation between the two governments, too, an area where it made progress on President Obama's recent visit.

Brazil and South Africa are lower priorities, but still matter. Brazil sticks with the Basic coalition to champion the interests of the broader developing world, particularly in Africa, which it views as essential to winning a permanent U.N. Security Council seat. The U.S. should make clear that it does not seek emissions curbs from the poorest countries. It should also attempt to deliver new money to help Africa deal with climate change. Brazil would be particularly enthusiastic about a partnership with the U.S. that aimed to spread ethanol technology to Africa.

South Africa ultimately stays with Basic in order to remain part of the negotiations: It is afraid of being left out when the talks reach their climax. About the only thing the U.S. can do about that is to remind South Africans that they risk ceding the ability to set their agenda to Beijing.

The Europe Problem

The other big problem for the U.S. is Europe. U.S. strategists have a habit of focusing on their enemies while ignoring their friends, but what Europe does with the climate talks matters. To avoid getting blamed if the talks fail, U.S. diplomats should invest more effort in explaining to the European public what the U.S. is actually doing on climate change, including efforts in the states and through the Environmental Protection Agency. They should also avoid taking unnecessary shots at what they see as shortcomings in Europe's own climate-change policies--something that happened in Copenhagen last year, and that only antagonizes European leaders.

To be sure, the challenges facing the U.S. do not come only, or perhaps even primarily, from other countries; it is exceedingly difficult for the U.S. to press for action from others when it has so much trouble mobilizing itself. If the talks collapse, the U.S. will genuinely deserve part of the blame.

Indeed, some will argue that failure, or at least irrelevance, is inevitable. Liberals who define success as a comprehensive global treaty foresee it because they (correctly) believe that such a treaty is currently impossible. Yet even a limited and informal international pact is a useful foundation for national actions by the biggest emitters. Last year's Copenhagen Accord provides such a platform, setting broad goals for all countries, and establishing the importance of combining national climate policies with international transparency. If the Cancún talks were to reinforce the Copenhagen pact, that would constitute success.

Meanwhile, for conservatives who believe that global action on climate change is inherently wrongheaded, "success" at the climate talks itself constitutes failure. Yet the Copenhagen Accord is the sort of agreement that conservatives should embrace: It recognizes the need for serious action from all major emitters, including China, while leaving the U.S. free to pursue its own goals as it pleases.

But the accord is in precarious shape, and Beijing would applaud if Cancún consigned it to history. By focusing on Basic and Europe, the U.S. can reinforce the thrust of the agreement regardless of whether Beijing cooperates, and make it more likely that China will come along. The best hope for the U.S. to reinforce the deal runs not through Beijing, but through everyone else.

--Mr. Levi is the David M. Rubenstein senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of a new study, "Energy Innovation: Driving Technology Competition and Cooperation Among the U.S., China, India, and Brazil." He can be reached at reports@wsj.com.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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