Hopes that the UN conference in Copenhagen will result in an ambitious climate treaty have faded, with UN climate chief Yvo de Boer now conceding that reaching a legally binding agreement will be impossible this year.
If December’s summit fails to deliver a strong accord, there will be some obvious culprits: the global recession, which has made nations reluctant to commit cash to the problem, and the US Senate, where horn-locking among lawmakers has delayed the passage of domestic legislation.
But even without these bumps in the road, some say the challenge set for negotiators in Copenhagen may simply have been too great from outset. In a feature out today on Nature Reports Climate Change (free access), Mason Inman looks at the UN summit from the perspective of researchers who study cooperation, some of whom argue that trying to get an effective multi-faceted treaty agreed between 192 nations is a waste of time. Many behavioural economists say — and common sense dictates — that a strong agreement would be more easily negotiated between fewer parties.
The legitimacy of this claim is perhaps evidenced by the recent bilateral talks between two of the world’s major greenhouse gas emitters, China and India, who last week signed a five-year pact to present a united front at international climate negotiations. Now, the US is now seeking to broker similar agreements, and according to some reports, US climate envoy Todd Stern says that such bilateral deals — with Russia and Brazil also — could be the building blocks for an international agreement in December.
From the perspective of political haggling, this makes sense. Cooperation in Copenhagen will only be achieved if those responsible for the majority of emissions can agree on how to apportion responsibility for climate change fairly, as well as on the incentives and deterrents that will ensure compliance, rather than encourage free-riding.
And according to those who study cooperation, it’s all about the carrots and sticks. Writes Inman:
Suppose there’s a country — call it Slackistan — that is emitting loads of carbon dioxide, and doesn’t want to cut back. If Slackistan can somehow convince all the other countries to take action, but do nothing itself, it gets all of the benefits of a cooler climate with none of effort. In game theory lingo, that’s called free riding.
An effective global deal on climate change has to, therefore, use carrots or sticks to nudge countries away from the default strategy — that of Slackistan — and towards cooperation. Figuring out how to create these incentives is the key, many game theorists say, to breaking the current stalemate and to keeping a strong agreement running for many decades.
So far in climate negotiations, however, the carrots have not been tasty enough, nor the sticks very menacing, writes Inman. The Kyoto Protocol, for example, aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across most developed countries by 2012 to 5 per cent below 1990 levels, but the targets were relaxed in subsequent agreements. Furthermore, countries such as Canada that look set to overshoot their targets are unlikely to suffer any penalties.
The deal sweeteners in the next climate agreement, whatever form it takes, will largely be financial, involving a transfer of vast amounts of cash to developing nations, but also allowing rich nations to offset their emissions by paying for reductions in developing countries, most likely through the Clean Development Mechanism. But what of the sticks? Could important tarrifs be an option? That looks unlikely, though they could be a part of US domestic legislation.
But while bilateral — or small multilateral — agreements may be more effective in ironing out some of these issues of equity and in agreeing on appropriate carrots and sticks, they can’t replace an international agreement. If Copenhagen results in a political declaration, rather than an actual treaty, it will be disappointing, but it still won’t have been a waste of time.
An international agreement on how to resolve climate change equitably would, after all, carry more clout than deals brokered behind closed doors. And perhaps more importantly, without an international deal in place, lawmakers risk setting aside the notion of controlling global greenhouse gas emissions in order to limit warming to within a specific temperature threshold. That is – after all – the intended objective of a climate deal.
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