The Argument

How Copenhagen can succeed where Kyoto failed

How Copenhagen can succeed where Kyoto failed

In December, the United Nations holds another summit on climate change. What needs to be different to prevent catastrophe? 

By Joseph Romm

Avoiding catastrophic climate change may be the single greatest challenge humanity has ever faced. The threat is of almost unimaginable scale. If greenhouse gas emissions remain unrestricted, the latest science says, the planet will be 5 degrees Celsius warmer by 2100 and the seas 5 feet higher — and rising. The world’s biomes will be vastly different, with massive dust bowls in the United States and water covering much of Bangladesh. Half of the species currently on the planet will be extinct. And human-caused climate change could be irreversible for 1,000 years.

Mitigating such disaster requires the world’s countries to make major coordinated changes. The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which produced the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, required countries to slash emissions, with rich countries reducing first and aiding poorer countries. But former U.S. President George W. Bush rejected Kyoto, and China, its growth fueled by coal, became the world’s biggest producer of greenhouse gases. Emissions have exploded at a faster rate than even the United Nations’ most pessimistic scenario.

This December in Copenhagen, there is another UNFCCC summit and another chance for the world to coordinate and help stop climate change. The prospects look auspicious this time, but the need for reform is also growing more urgent. Foremost, the United States is finally developing legislation that would slash emissions 83 percent by 2050. And China has committed to a green-energy future — though only in amorphous terms.

Still, a draft treaty prepared by nongovernmental organizations and released last week — a good guideline for how the Copenhagen protocol might look — gives reason for pause.

Its central goal is clear and necessary: “The global mean temperature must peak as far below 2°C above the pre-industrial period as possible.” The draft also contains a number of valuable articles aimed at breaking the logjam over deforestation and financing the transition to a clean-energy economy in the developing world.

But it has two flaws that must be addressed before the meeting in Copenhagen. First, the draft is built around a Chinese demand that industrialized countries reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. That is simply not going to happen. The Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill winding its way through the U.S. Congress aims to reduce emissions to a few percentage points below 1990 levels. Japan has recently announced a goal only slightly stronger than that of the United States. And even Europe seems unlikely to agree to more than a 20 percent cut. A workable treaty must therefore be built around a more realistic target for developed countries.

Second, the draft never once mentions China — the biggest and fastest-growing emitter, and thus the biggest determinant of success — by name. Indeed, China’s growth in emissions could erode all other countries’ efforts to stabilize the world’s temperature. Thus, the upcoming UNFCCC must address China rationally and squarely. Beijing is not prepared to institute an absolute emissions cap or reduction. But, the new climate protocol should require China to at least stall emissions growth at under half the past decade’s rate and ensure that the country’s emissions peak no later than 2025. China is aggressively pursuing leadership in a variety of clean-energy technologies on its own terms, and whatever results from Copenhagen should address those laudable efforts as well.

The Copenhagen UNFCCC meeting offers the opportunity for bold changes to help preserve our planet and ourselves. But only if all key emitters come to the table and make difficult concessions — and only if the UNFCCC sets plausible targets and works with all players — will Copenhagen succeed where Kyoto failed.

Joseph Romm is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he runs the blog He served as acting U.S. assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy in 1997.

Photo: Flickr user AmiCalmant