A Dead End

Copenhagen won’t work. Obama should focus instead on working with the top twenty emitters.

Imagine eating out with two hundred friends and then, when the waiter brings the bill, launching negotiations over who should pay what share. "Did you have the filet mignon?" "I only ordered water!" "You two didn't pay the last time we went out, you should cover our dinner this time!" Now you might have a good idea what it would like to sit in on United Nations climate change negotiations in Copenhagen.

There is, of course, one crucial difference between the climate talks and the chaos of a 200-person debate about a restaurant bill: the world's energy appetites (and resulting carbon-dioxide emissions) are much more concentrated, with the top ten economies producing around 80 percent of the emissions. The top two-China and the United States-generate over 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions between them. According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data for 2006, the bottom one hundred or so emitters each produce less that one-tenth of one percent of total global emissions, meaning they release less than 10 percent of emissions collectively-and that they are basically spectators at the UN negotiations.

The real action is in China and America, and the key differences are those between them. While Beijing appears to have abandoned its long-standing position demanding financial assistance from developed economies to reduce its emissions-reflecting the fact that its planned reductions are driven by economics rather than environmentalism, and rendering the concession somewhat less dramatic than it may first appear-China remains opposed to making a legally-binding and internationally-verifiable commitment.

This is clearly in part a position of principle, in that the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change established the idea that developed and developing countries have "common but differentiated responsibility" to fight climate change, and that developed countries need to do more because of their greater historical responsibility for greenhouse-gas emissions.

Nevertheless, China also seems to be taking a page from the Bush administration's playbook, in the sense that leaders of this top global power see little need to commit to something when others seem likely to act in their own perceived interests anyway. Bush advisors saw no need for verifiable arms-control treaties with Russia because they thought Moscow would slash its arsenal for its own reasons.

On the U.S. side, the Obama administration well recognizes that no significant American emissions-reduction commitment can hope for Senate ratification without meaningful-and verifiable-Chinese cuts. So the Copenhagen talks are at a standstill, at least until the administration blinks and accepts a deal that can't get ratified (like the Kyoto Protocol), probably hoping to get the credit internationally and domestically while eventually pinning the blame on Senate Republicans.

Ironically, one of the main reasons that the administration is in this position in the first place is its over-eager efforts to get Beijing on board in an international climate agreement in the first place. The reason? The administration appeared so desperate for a global deal including China that Chinese leaders began to think they held all the cards.

There are at least two alternatives to this approach, both driven by a hard-headed assessment of U.S. interests. The first-for those who are fixated on securing a Chinese emissions-reduction commitment-would be to change the dynamics of U.S.-China engagement and restore American leverage by making clear the reality that China is considerably more vulnerable to climate change than the United States, which would be in a much better position to adapt to rising temperatures because of its more effective governance, stronger civil society and greater resources. This is the game of climate-change chicken.

The second-for those who believe that whatever comes out of Copenhagen will matter much less than what governments, businesses, and individuals decide to do on their own-would be to focus on robust domestic action to increase efficiency and develop new energy technologies, and to concentrate internationally on coordination among the top twenty or so emitters rather than the laborious process of developing consensus among nearly two hundred nations.

If the administration weren't spending so much time on the dead-end negotiations in Copenhagen-and then getting ready for next year's meeting-they might even be able to do both.


Paul J. Saunders is executive director of the Nixon Center.