UN negotiators meet in Cancun, Mexico, starting on November 29 for two weeks of talks on moving forward on international climate action. Important questions remain about what happens to the Kyoto Protocol, says Michael Levi, CFR senior fellow for climate and energy. He argues the best outcome for the talks would be to reinforce the 2009 Copenhagen Accord, though the accord remains controversial. "It’s a deal that was made among political leaders from all the key countries, and a gathering of professional negotiators, no matter how skilled, is not going to replace that with something more ambitious, more substantial, more binding," Levi says. He also notes that U.S. negotiators come to the table with a weakened position because of Congress’ inability to pass comprehensive climate policy. "The United States is going to have to take a fairly defensive approach," he says. "It wants to preserve the Copenhagen Accord, which some other countries would be quite happy to see disappear, and at the same time it wants to make sure that if the talks blow up, it doesn’t get blamed."
What are the outstanding issues going into this year’s UN climate meeting in Cancun?
Almost every issue you can imagine is outstanding going into the Cancun meeting. People are still haggling over how much different countries should cut emissions, how they should put money on the table, what we should do about technology, how we should handle transparency, and on top of that, beyond the substance, there’s haggling over the legal form of agreement, the future of the Kyoto Protocol, what to do about deforestation.
Overall, where do governments stand on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol?
There are two big questions when you talk about a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. The first is a direct legal successor. The Kyoto Protocol doesn’t vanish at the end of 2012. It’s only the first commitment period that goes away. So there is an important technical and legal issue front and center at Cancun, frankly, of what happens to the Kyoto Protocol. There are an enormous range of views and it’s not clear where the resolution is. The other question is where does the big, broad architecture come in to replace the Kyoto Protocol? And again, the Copenhagen Accord, while a lot of people don’t like it, is the only game in town. The bottom line is it’s a deal that was made among political leaders from all the key countries, and a gathering of professional negotiators--no matter how skilled--is not going to replace that with something more ambitious, more substantial, more binding than what the leaders were able to come up with.
The United States is the one big developed country that didn’t ratify the Kyoto Protocol. That’s a mixed blessing. On the one hand, other countries still resent that, [and] it leaves the United States with a somewhat weaker seat at the table when it comes to seeing how to move forward on Kyoto itself. On the other hand, there are a lot of countries that essentially say that the United States has been punished already for not being a serious part of the Kyoto Protocol, and they understand that the U.S. will move forward in a different way. [But] regardless of what kind of formal agreement it’s willing to make itself part of, what people look at and see in the United States is an inability to pass the kinds of laws and regulations needed to deal with the climate problem.
How different is the U.S. bargaining position--post midterm election--going to be compared to Copenhagen? And what challenges do negotiators face?
The United States is going to have to take a fairly defensive approach. It wants to preserve the Copenhagen Accord, which some other countries would be quite happy to see disappear, and at the same time it wants to make sure that if the talks blow up, it doesn’t get blamed.
It’s not just the midterm elections that have hurt the U.S. bargaining position, [it is] the difficulty in passing any comprehensive climate change legislation. The midterm elections reinforced that, and that’s not going to change in the next couple of years. So the United States has a substantially weaker bargaining position. It’s harder for it to go and lecture other countries. It’s also harder at a level of substance to talk about how it’s going to deliver the sort of money that was put up, at least theoretically, in the Copenhagen Accord last year. That means that the United States is going to have to take a fairly defensive approach. It wants to preserve the Copenhagen Accord, which some other countries would be quite happy to see disappear, and at the same time it wants to make sure that if the talks blow up, it doesn’t get blamed. So it’s got those two goals at the same time, to maximize the substantive outcome but at the same time to be a bit defensive on the PR front.
Why is the Copenhagen Accord controversial?
The Copenhagen Accord is a political agreement that includes three basic elements. The first is a set of goals: keeping temperature rises to two degrees centigrade, [and] raising $100 billion a year by 2020 to help developing countries deal with climate change. The second is [emissions] pledges by every major country, including the United States, China, and others. And the third is transparency on efforts supported by international finance and technology.
What’s controversial about it first is the way it was agreed to. It wasn’t done through the formal, universal process. It was done by a smaller number of leaders, and so some don’t like that. Second, it’s not legally binding [like the Kyoto Protocol], and a lot of people hold out legally binding as the most important judgment of whether an international deal is acceptable. And third, the commitments in the accord to cut emissions don’t add up to the sorts of reductions needed to meet the overall goals that people talk about [as needed to reduce the threat of climate change]. Now, the response to that as far as I’m concerned is that the Copenhagen Accord is a beginning not an end. You don’t throw something out simply because it doesn’t solve all of your problems. But for some people, that’s exactly how it is: If the Copenhagen Accord doesn’t fix everything once and for all, it’s not worth doing.
Countries are more likely to pursue clean-energy solutions when they are also part of a package that helps their own economy. So there’s a connection between technology innovation and production on the one side, and implementation, which leads to emissions cuts, on the other.
What’s a good outcome for Cancun?
A successful outcome for Cancun is primarily about reinforcing the Copenhagen Accord. So number one, make sure that whatever comes at Cancun follows the basic political deal outline in the Copenhagen Accord. And number two, you want to put a bit of meat on the bones on various key elements of that deal. So reinforce countries’ commitments to their own emissions cuts, adopt some of the recommendations of the high-level panel on climate finance--to at least show there’s a path toward raising the $100 billion by 2020 that was promised in the accord--get some more detail on transparency. From a U.S. perspective on money, it’s going to be hard to mobilize much in the next few years, but at least say that we’re going to protect the short-term financing from pressure to cut foreign aid budgets, which will certainly be present. So we basically need to start filling in the details. Last year we talked about an accord that could be immediately operationalized. What the meeting has to do is essentially start to operationalize that accord.
When you say transparency, what are we talking about? Emissions-cut verification mechanisms?
Well, the Copenhagen Accord included provisions for what was called consultation analysis on different countries’ reports on what they were doing, and that wasn’t primarily about measuring emissions and verifying emissions. It was about assessing countries’ policies and whether those policies were being implemented and whether they were succeeding. That’s the sort of thing you need in order to build trust among parties, in order to create something of a virtuous cycle. It was one of the few bottom lines the United States held to throughout the negotiations, and it’s very hard to see the United States giving that up in these talks.
How can developed and developing countries overcome disagreements on burden sharing?
It’s very difficult for developed and developing countries to overcome disagreements about burden sharing. It’s also very difficult for developed countries to overcome disagreements with other developed countries over burden sharing. The United States and Europe disagree almost as much as the United States and China do, so that’s very important to keep in mind. The bottom line is those aren’t going to be resolved, at least in the near term, through negotiators sitting at a table. They’re going to be resolved as countries try to do different things and see how hard they are, see what kinds of burdens there are to be shared--because right now, a lot of that is very much theoretical. That’s really the world we’re moving into--one where this is all determined on a rolling basis as we move forward, as countries adjust their policies and see whether we’re meeting our goals.
In a new report, you discuss the role of policies for energy innovation and opening up new markets to low-carbon technologies. What’s biggest take-away from that paper overall, and for Cancun in particular?
Here’s the challenge. Countries are more likely to pursue clean-energy solutions when they are also part of a package that helps their own economy. So there’s a connection between technology innovation and production on the one side, and implementation, which leads to emissions cuts, on the other. That means that for the United States, there’s some advantage to helping other countries develop new technologies and make those technologies, because it can lead to emissions cuts. The problem of course is that presents a competitive threat to U.S. clean technology innovators and manufacturers.
The challenge to policymakers in the United States becomes reconciling the two sides. How do you promote innovation and the spread of technology so that you can cut emissions, while also safeguarding U.S. competitive interests? And the bottom line for succeeding is that you have to enlarge clean energy markets. The only way for developing countries to get a bigger slice of the pie and for companies in the United States to get a bigger slice of the pie is to make the pie bigger in the first place. And the way to do that is by promoting innovation directly, by opening up markets, both by enlarging markets for clean energy but also by reducing barriers to trade and investment. But then backing that up with government efforts to explicitly support the spread of technology, whether that’s by providing insurance for intellectual property rights, financing demonstration projects that extend across borders, providing introductions and essentially extension centers for companies and innovators wanting to find commercialization opportunities elsewhere. You need to mash this commercial side of investment and trade with the government-driven side of R&D cooperation.
Most of what we talk about needs to be done on a bilateral basis. But one of the pieces that we talk about can be tackled at Cancun. India has proposed something called climate innovation centers, which would bring together innovators and producers from different countries in order to find collective solutions. That’s been a live issue in the negotiations. It’s something where there’s a substantial amount of success, and it’s an area where we recommend moving forward.