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Why the Cancun Climate Talks Matter

November 29, 2010

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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Why the Cancun Climate Talks Matter

The sixteenth annual UN climate negotiations kick off today in Cancun. I’ve got a couple pieces out this morning looking at different aspects of the talks, in the Wall Street Journal and at Slate.

My piece in the Journal is summed up pretty well in its first couple sentences:

“As the United Nations climate talks open today in Cancun, 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.”

Readers of this blog may be familiar with parts of this argument. I also talk about how the U.S. should approach Europe; if I’d have had more space, I’d have also written about how the U.S. should deal with Mexico and the G-77. But the bottom line is that if the U.S. wants support for its strategy, it needs to earn it; it can’t simply focus on China and expect others to back it up.

Over at Slate, I make a broader case for why the Cancun climate talks matter. It’s not that meaningful progress is likely – far from it. Rather, what matters is that Cancun could be a significant setback if it isn’t handled right. The reality is that even those of us who don’t love the UN talks are stuck with them, and we need to make the best of a bad situation. Here’s my basic argument:

“Reporters, opinionators, and analysts are right to have limited hopes for Cancun, but dangerously wrong if they think the meeting is unimportant. Last year’s talks produced the ‘Copenhagen Accord’, a political agreement that was roundly savaged. Yet the Accord is more valuable and important than most assume—and its future is at risk in Cancun. If negotiators let it die, as many privately wish, they will not get something closer to their ideal; they will get nothing.”

Of course, for some, “nothing” may in fact be the ideal. But anyone who thinks that a blowup in Cancun will lead smoothly to a nice G20 or MEF-focused climate process is kidding himself. It is far more likely to lead to a Kyoto-II-style arrangement where the United States is once again marginalized. Better to have a basic framework based on the Copenhagen Accord as the contribution that the UN process can make; then we can do other things primarily elsewhere.

There are many other interesting (and occasionally infuriating) pieces out there to kick off the talks. The New York Times published two on Sunday: a largely smart piece by David Victor and V. Ramanathan on cutting black carbon and ozone; and a somewhat confused piece by former EcoSecurities CEO Bruce Usher, who may be the only person who still thinks that a big U.S.-China climate deal might be the cards. The Journal, meanwhile, carries a more-interesting-than-usual essay from Ted Nordhaus and Michael Schellenberger. It’s all over the place, with some parts more convincing than others, but the part I’m drawn most to concerns the balance between international competition and cooperation on clean energy. (That’s something I’ve written quite a bit about recently.) Ted and Michael are right, I think, to emphasize that some protectionist actions may be necessary to get cleantech-supporting policies off the ground; they’re also right that, if those go too far, they’ll stifle innovation. But I’m skeptical of their solution, which mostly does away with IP and substitutes government contracts for the market in driving innovation.  That might make sense for a lot of early stage R&D (though I wouldn’t be as cavalier as them about IP), but it strikes me as fundamentally incompatible with the American economic system once you get into later stages of the innovation process. Regardless, I’m glad to see others writing about the challenges involved with making clean energy innovation work at a global scale; this is an area that’s ripe for more scholarship and debate.

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