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Copenhagen's Conundrum

Interviewee: Michael A. Levi, David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment and Director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change, CFR
Interviewer: Toni Johnson, Staff Writer, CFR.org
October 5, 2009

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With the introduction of draft climate legislation in the U.S. Senate, Congress has an opportunity to provide clear signals about U.S. commitments on emissions targets ahead of the December UN meeting in Copenhagen, which aims to forge a new agreement on climate change. CFR Senior Fellow Michael A. Levi stresses the need for strong domestic policies to underpin international agreements on climate. "Ultimately, what we put in an international agreement is in some sense aspirational," he says. "What matters is whether it's reflected in domestic law." He says the Obama administration will have a tough time in Copenhagen without clarity from Congress, but that President Barack Obama has other options to advance his agenda on controlling emissions should climate policy stall in Congress.

World leaders got together last month for a high-level climate summit followed by a geo-economic summit that touched on energy issues. China made a climate policy announcement at the climate summit.  At the G-20 meeting, leaders agreed to end energy subsidies at some future point which some argue inflates energy demand. How significant are these announcements?

Each of the announcements has its own significance. The Chinese announcement is not contentless but has been overplayed. China announced that it would have a target of having 15 percent of its energy from non-fossil sources by 2020. That's not new. They said that they would adopt emissions intensity targets [the ratio of carbon dioxide to a measure of economic output] for 2020. That's promising but the question is what the numbers will be. Business as usual for China already involves declining emissions intensity, so whether these are meaningful or not depends on how aggressive they are.

On energy subsidies, there was real progress. It is essentially universally agreed that subsidies, particularly in the developing world, encourage extraordinary overconsumption of fossil fuels. And while the G-20 didn't set a definite deadline and left some room for interpretation in its language, it has put in place a process where every country is going to have to examine its subsidies, come up with a plan for them, and justify that plan to the other members of the G-20 in successive meetings. Ultimately, regardless of the targets we end up adopting or not adopting through an international climate process, we're going to have to have actual policies that get us to them. And things like reforming fuel subsidies should be leading elements of that suite of policies.

You said prior to the climate summit that some U.S. lawmakers would rather see a binding target for China even if it is meaningless in terms of real emissions reductions. What would placate U.S. lawmakers as far as commitments and policies from China?

Members of Congress seem to have made the legal form of a Chinese commitment their overarching priority. They want to see China make commitments that are technically legally binding in the same sense that U.S. commitments would be legally binding under an international agreement. And if that's not forthcoming then they would want symmetry. So U.S. commitments would also not be legally binding on the international level. They seem to be less focused on what the actual content of the commitments is. Some want to see caps that essentially mirror the U.S. approach. There is no way that is going to happen. It doesn't make any sense. It's impractical, but the legal form is more straightforward to understand and really has become a rallying principal not just for people who tend to take a hard line on climate but for a lot of moderates and relatively liberal Democrats.

Ultimately, regardless of the targets we end up adopting or not adopting through an international climate process, we're going to have to have actual policies that get us to them. And things like reforming fuel subsidies should be leading elements of that suite of policies.

What do legally binding targets mean practically?

At a technical level, legally binding means that under international law, a country's committed to do what it says it will do. Now international law is relatively weak and particularly when consequences aren't spelled out for countries, legally binding doesn't necessarily amount to all that much.

So when we get to 2012, the end of the current compliance period for the Kyoto Protocol, if there are countries that haven't met their commitments, what's going to happen?

There aren't going to be consequences for the countries that don't meet their Kyoto commitments. Technically, their deficit, their shortfall in the Kyoto period is added on as an extra burden in the next period. But since we haven't decided what their burden is in the next period, it's essentially irrelevant. We're going to negotiate the next period independently of what happens during this one.

Instead of international binding commitments, why not set "aspirational targets"--to take from the Bush administration's playbook--and then let every country commit to what's going to be possible to do in their domestic paradigm, a sort of climate federalism. Is that what's happening anyway?

That's what a lot of negotiators are looking at. Ultimately, what we put in an international agreement is in some sense aspirational. What matters is whether it's reflected in domestic law. The Obama administration has tried to put language in an international agreement that would require international commitments to be in conformity with domestic law. They've got a lot of pushback from people who say that this is an American way of creating a loophole where they would get out of international commitments because of shortfalls in domestic law. U.S. negotiators are really saying we don't trust your international commitments unless you have domestic law to back them up. And there's a real disconnect amongst negotiators there.

By some accounts, President Obama showed up at the UN climate meeting "empty-handed" because he was unable to make any kind of concrete statements due to the political realities in Congress. Some EU officials have expressed real frustration over the holdup in Congress right now. How could Obama take a strong negotiating position going into Copenhagen?

The EU reaction to what's happening in Congress is mixed. Some of it is genuine, where EU diplomats really think that the key to a deal in Copenhagen is action in Congress and they want to see it before Copenhagen. Other EU diplomats understand that there are a lot of barriers to an agreement in Copenhagen, one of which is U.S. legislation, but that's far from everything that is missing. And they're focusing on the situation in Congress as a way to lay the groundwork for putting the blame for what happens in Copenhagen on the United States.

President Obama does have a relatively weak negotiating position, not only because the United States doesn't have domestic legislation in place but because he doesn't know what Congress is willing to tolerate in terms of financial and technological support for developing countries, which is an indispensible part of the bargain that will ultimately need to be made for an international agreement. The president can [go to Copenhagen] with a lot of the other moves that have been made, [such as] the stimulus package, vehicle regulations, and potentially a clean-energy and energy-efficiency bill that might make it through before Copenhagen.

Members of Congress seem to have made the legal form of a Chinese commitment their overarching priority.

Pending legislation, including the Senate bill introduced last week, uses 2005 as a baseline rather than 1990 for emissions targets. President Obama has expressed a goal of reaching 1990 levels by 2020. Meanwhile the EU and Japan are talking 20 percent to 25 percent below 1990 levels. So even if there is U.S. action, isn't there going to be a major disconnect in targets?

There are a few important things to understand here. The level of reductions relative to 1990 is one of many measures that one can use to compare climate goals. Another way is to ask what is the level of effort that it takes to take that last ton of reductions [in greenhouse gas emissions]? What's the marginal cost of reaching the goals? And I've seen serious impartial analyses that indicate that the U.S. effort to reach its goal would be higher than the European effort to reach its own goal. A lot of the European emissions reductions come from the fact that the Eastern European economy collapsed and British coal unions were defeated. A lot of the U.S. increase comes from things like population and economic growth. Just because the top-line numbers are very different doesn't mean that the levels of effort line up with that. The U.S. 2030 and 2050 targets are very ambitious. Everyone is obsessed with the 2020 target, but the difference between the 17 percent below 2005 levels in the House bill and going 40 percent below 1990 levels, which is what's being demanded, is two parts per million in the atmosphere of greenhouse gas concentrations. And we're talking about an [ultimate] target of 450 parts per million [in total global concentration]. So in the grand scheme of things environmentally, the difference actually is fairly immaterial if everything else sticks around.

Now that won't stop the Europeans from complaining about it but I do think that once something is eventually settled in Congress, they will move on. Right now a lot of Europeans either think that pressure will change things or that this is a U.S. bargaining position that might be modified. It's not, it's political reality. And once they see that, they'll move on. [But] the Chinese and the Indians might use the fact that this isn't 40 percent below 1990 levels as a negotiating tactic for themselves.

There is a very powerful political minority in the United States that has significant ideological opposition to climate policy. Are there other international treaties where the stakes were this high that had this kind of domestic opposition? Were these challenges overcome?

There were arms control treaties with this level of domestic opposition and the challenges weren't overcome. There's a crowd that will never sign on to any of this. Ultimately getting sixty-seven votes for any kind of treaty will be challenging. The administration will probably look at other options. One may be to treat this the same way we treat international trade deals, where you go for passage as a congressional-executive agreement with sixty votes in the Senate and 50 percent in the House. Another may be as an implementing agreement to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change which has already been ratified by the Senate. Each of those may impose new constraints on what exactly can be done in an agreement. There are legal and constitutional restrictions on what one can do through a treaty versus a congressional-executive agreement versus an implementing agreement. But they will seek alternative approaches if that's what they think they need in order to get something in place.

You've likened getting an international climate agreement to getting the World Trade Organization up and running, which took years to complete. How would that work for climate? Unlike trade, there are timelines that people hope to meet on emissions reductions.

The first question you have to ask yourself is whether you can do it with a different model. So people will argue, "Trade negotiations take too long so we can't have anything that's like a trade negotiation." The fact of the matter is that having something that looks like an environmental negotiation doesn't promise you that you will deliver everything you need on time, either. The benefit of an approach that involves rounds of effort where intermediate agreements can be made without having to go all the way through is that we can build incrementally and countries can build confidence in their ability to follow through on emissions-cutting efforts. We can ideally have a virtuous cycle of countries deepening and widening their commitments and their actual actions and policies to cut emissions. That is at least some of the time what we see in the trade world. Sometimes it works in the other direction, but on the whole, if you look through the sweep of history, that is the direction we've managed to go. Now, it may be that the trade experience tells us that we're not going to be able to get where we need to on climate change. But insisting that everyone somehow get together and declare they've solved the problem and that somehow means we have solved the problem is kidding ourselves.

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