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Climate Change Realism

Author: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
August 20, 2009
South China Morning Post


Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen, a popular song from the 1952 film musical Hans Christian Andersen, will probably be played many times this autumn, when world leaders gather in the Danish capital in December (and in New York in September) to confront the challenge of climate change. But, unless international thinking gets considerably more realistic in a hurry, what happens in Copenhagen will be anything but wonderful.

It should come as no surprise that there is little consensus on a comprehensive accord that would have a meaningful impact on the world's climate. Governments will not sacrifice economic growth in the near and medium term for long-term environmental benefits. This is especially true now, given that much of the developed world is in the midst of a painful recession. The US, for one, will not accept ceilings that reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions significantly if it means accepting higher costs and taxes that risk slowing economic recovery.

Developing countries are, if anything, even more opposed to such ceilings or "caps". Four hundred million Indians still lack electricity; India cannot be expected to rule out greater use of coal if that proves to be the best way to produce electricity for one-third of its citizens. China, too, is unlikely to agree to caps on emissions of any kind, given the relatively low standard of living of most Chinese. But such a stance dooms prospects for a new global treaty, as developed countries will rightly insist poorer countries be part of the solution.

The consequences of failure in Copenhagen could be considerable. In the short term, we may well see climate-related concerns become the newest excuse for increased trade protectionism. So-called "carbon tariffs" are likely to be introduced to penalise imports from countries or companies deemed not to be doing enough to curb emissions. World trade is already down sharply as a result of the economic crisis; introducing new tariffs would reduce trade further.

Over time, a failure to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions would lead to additional climate change, which in turn would increase the severity of poverty, the scale of internal migration, the scarcity of water, the prevalence of disease and the number and intensity of storms. The result could be more failed states and more conflict between states. Climate change is as much a matter of security as it is an economic and human concern.

So what should be done? The most important step for those preparing for Copenhagen is to embrace national policies that increase energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. The US has at long last done some of this in adopting new and much higher standards for vehicle fuel efficiency. Regulatory policy can increase the efficiency of appliances, housing and machinery. Such reforms should appeal to rich and poor countries alike, as they would reduce spending on energy and dependence on oil imports.

Co-ordinated national actions are not the same as unilateralism. There is no unilateral answer to what is a global challenge. But to describe a challenge as global is not to argue that the remedy is to be found only in an ambitious, formal and universal treaty. Such an accord might well be desirable, but it is simply not an option for climate change any time soon. The goal for the representatives of the nearly 200 countries who will meet in Copenhagen should not be a single sweeping agreement so much as a set of more modest agreements.

Coal is one place to begin, as it will continue to generate most of the world's electricity for years to come. Greater sharing of technologies for cleaner coal is needed, as is continued development of next-generation clean-coal plants.

Nuclear power is another area requiring attention. So, too, are renewable forms of power, such as solar and wind. Mechanisms are needed for sharing new technology and helping poorer countries pay for them in exchange for adopting policies that reduce emissions.

Stopping the destruction of forests is essential, given how much carbon is trapped in them. One objective for Copenhagen should be to create a global fund to support policies that deter deforestation, help countries such as Brazil and Indonesia protect their rainforests, and provide new livelihoods to those now involved in their destruction.

Focusing on steps such as these would help reach the often-discussed goal of halving global carbon emissions by mid-century. But reaching an accord that sets binding ceilings for what each country will be allowed to emit is not an option in Copenhagen. The consensus simply does not exist.

Smaller steps, however, can and should be taken. Those who want to master the challenge of climate change now will reject such realism. But, those who insist on getting everything risk getting nothing.

Richard N. Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Copyright: Project Syndicate.

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