U.S. Climate Change Envoy: Post-Kyoto Talks 'Inadequate'

Posted by: Mark Scott on July 14, 2009

A politician that tells the truth is like a dog that can talk — a very rare breed. Yet in a moment of candor, Jonathan Pershing, U.S. deputy special envoy for climate change, admitted what others have been whispering for a while: negotiations in Copenhagen at the end of year to replace the Kyoto Protocol will be disappointing. “[The talks] won’t fail, but [they] will likely be inadequate,” Pershing said on July 13.

That may come as a surprise to those hoping the Copenhagen talks will mark a sea-change in how the world tackles global warming. But with less than six months to go before the summit, Pershing’s comment is a realistic take on what has — and, more importantly, what hasn’t — been agreed since policymakers last met in Bali at the end of 2007.

Without getting bogged down in detail, here’s where things stand.

On the positive front, leading developed countries, including the U.S., have signed up to the global warming agenda. A cap-and-trade bill (granted, with many caveats) is slowly working its way through Congress. And at last week's G8 summit in Italy, politicians agreed to an 80% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050 (though they didn't give a baseline for cuts and critics say the timeframe is too far out).

Yet not everything is going to plan. Emerging economies are still calling for developed countries to shoulder the lion's share of CO2 reductions. They're also asking rich nations to fork out billions of dollars in economic aid and technology transfers to help the likes of India and China (as well as poorer countries) to deal with global warming. Not surprisingly in the current economic climate, Western politicians aren't that receptive to the demands.

Even within developed countries, getting climate change policies aligned ahead of Copenhagen will be tough. Europe has set the most proactive targets (a 20% unilateral cut in carbon emissions by 2020, rising to 30% if other countries match it), but support for CO2 reductions, particularly in Eastern Europe where the recession has been hard felt, isn't as strong as it had once been. And in the U.S., as Pershing points out, the lack of a finalized climate change bill before December could weaken the U.S.' negotiating position in Copenhagen.

That doesn't mean a post-Kyoto agreement won't eventually be found. The Protocol runs out at the end of 2012, so this year's Copenhagen discussions look set to be a step towards a global carbon treaty -- not the be-all-and-end-all that many campaigners are hoping for.

Reader Comments

Tim

July 14, 2009 9:22 AM

Welcome back!

Rmoen

July 15, 2009 11:41 AM

Daily I read editorials, comments and letters-to-the-editor from all over the nation. Support for cap-and-trade is evaporating. Whereas two weeks ago it was maybe 2-to-1 against cap and trade, opinion now seems to be at least 6-to-1 against. The Senate will be wise to heed the overwhelming lack of public support and stop this disastrous legislation from passing into law.

If instead of cap-and-trade the United States had a national mandate to replace coal generation plants with natural gas and nuclear energy, plus if we replaced our commuter cars with battery-powered electric cars, we would drastically reduce our dependence on foreign oil and reduce CO2 emissions faster and beyond the proposed cap and trade targets.

-- Robert Moen

Mark Scott -- BusinessWeek

July 15, 2009 12:13 PM

Robert,

Your point about mounting opposition to a US cap-and-trade scheme is well-taken. But how else would you fund your 'national mandate' for natural gas/nuclear & electric vehicles? The European experience with carbon trading (though by no means perfect) shows a relatively long-term carbon price provides the necessary economic grounding for utilities and other firms to invest in low-carbon improvements. The market sets a price, which (in theory) stimulates investment.

Instead of a cap-and-trade scheme, many have suggested a carbon tax that could provide an impetus to spend on low-carbon technologies. Personally, I'm not sure a top-down tax would work best. For me, a market-based mechanism allows greater flexibility.

What do people think? Cap-and-trade, carbon tax, or something else?

Mark Scott -- BusinessWeek

Robert Moen

July 15, 2009 2:28 PM

Scott-
I personally would like to see more top down planning in our country's energy policy. Over and over I hear that the government should not pick winners and losers, but the flip side of that coin is that 'market solutions' often add expensive overhead to our economy.

I'd like to see something like 'retire all coal generation plants in 30 years; remove barriers for nuclear power; quit messing around with Yucca Mountain and find place for scientifically best permanent storage geographically near nuclear power plants; tax credits for electric cars.' See my website EnergyPlanUSA.com for more thoughts and research.

One more point: The United States needs our own 'climate truth commission'. The UN, a political organization, should not be determining our energy policy.

-- Robert Moen

Aditya Iyengar

July 16, 2009 5:00 AM

I have always supported market based pricing, however, the idea that it will stimulate investment into actual reduction of carbon is not entirely true. If anything, we have only created a financial instrument for trade that will give rise to volatility and speculation. May prove useful to investment bankers as they will have one more asset to show in their portfolio, but it won't really cut down emissions.

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About

BusinessWeek correspondents John Carey and Mark Scott, cover the green scene, keeping on top of the business aspects of energy, the environment and climate change, as well as the technologies, policies, markets and people that are shaping how the earth's resources will be used in the century ahead.

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