Only a New Bloc Can Save the Climate

The key players should cut out the others for the best chance of an emissions deal.

After the wearisome negotiations in Doha, the United Nations global climate talks are not leading to the necessary breakthrough.

Constrained with an ongoing economic crisis in Europe and a looming fiscal cliff in the United States, industrialized nations have not kept their financial promise, collectively made in Copenhagen in 2009, to provide billions of dollars in aid to the countries most affected by climate change. Annoyed by the lack of ambitions from their wealthy counterparts, the developing country bloc is generally unwilling to single out major emerging economies to step up their efforts to mitigate greenhouse-gas emissions.

But there is still hope. At least, the Doha round of talks extended the Kyoto Protocol and 194 countries agreed to move onto a single negotiating track. And last year in Durban, all countries, no matter their stage of development, decided to work toward a legally binding international climate treaty by 2015, which takes effect in 2020.

The window of opportunity to keep the global average temperature rise below two degrees Celsius, however, is quickly closing. According to the International Energy Agency, about 80 percent of the total allowable carbon emissions by 2035 under this goal has already been locked-in within the existing energy infrastructure. If the world does not take drastic action, the chance of controlling global average temperature rise below two degrees Celsius is estimated by the same agency to be a mere 2 percent.

The enormous organizational costs in terms of time, energy, and money, as well as the failure to reach a universal agreement on binding reduction targets for all parties, reflect an underlying structural weakness of the current framework for climate negotiations.

A new approach is needed.

Reaching an agreement among 194 countries whose economic status, development, resource endowments, historic responsibility for global greenhouse gas emissions, and national interests vary widely, is inherently challenging.

Yet, a shift toward bilateral negotiations between the world’s two largest emitters—China and the United States—is hampered by its own set of political and strategic challenges. The U.S.-China relationship is increasingly competitive and neither country is willing to commit to a legally binding international treaty for fear of potentially negative economic impacts. This means that climate talks between China and the United States are unlikely to move much beyond political posturing.

Any potential climate negotiations between just the United States and China could also suffer from a lack of global legitimacy: their economies account for less than one third of global GDP, their citizens make up less than a quarter of the world’s population, and they represent only two of the world’s regions—North America and Asia.

So how can the impasse be overcome?

While China and the United States are essential, it makes sense to bring both the European Union and Russia into the fold. Participation of the European Union is invaluable in terms of its experience in the implementation of a carbon market, its success in reducing carbon emissions, and its familiarity with negotiations among culturally, economically, and politically diverse countries.

Russia is widely regarded as an unconstructive party in negotiations under the UN platform, but Russian participation still matters given the country’s sizable carbon emissions and its great potential to tackle climate change by conserving energy.

Combining nearly 60 percent of the world’s GDP and accounting for a similar percentage of global carbon emissions, the CURE economies—China, the United States, Russia, and European Union—are the ideal platform for multilateral collaboration on climate solutions. These countries’ aggregate economic output, energy consumption, and carbon emissions are expected to continuously represent more than half of the global total in the decades to come. Hope for combating global climate change rests on creating synergy among these four economies first.

And all four will benefit from collaboration on climate solutions. China can advance its cooperation with the United States and Europe and increase its own energy security through closer ties with Russia. The United States will face less pressure from the developing world to pay the full cost of adaptation and mitigation. Russia will improve its miserable energy-efficiency record. And Europe will have greater success in transferring its experience with climate legislation and carbon trading to these countries, while exploring specific opportunities with Russia and the United States to internally develop and import more natural gas as a substitute for coal.

Above all, cooperation between a few key players should be much easier than consensus building among 194 countries. For instance, a CURE dialogue on climate solutions may be initiated to promote collective actions on emissions abatement, and a CURE agreement could be just what’s needed to then reach a global deal.

The world is urgently running out of time to contain the global temperature rise below two degrees Celsius, and the UN framework for climate negotiations is unlikely to quickly produce robust results. So it is time to move the global climate agenda forward by exploring alternative platforms for collaboration. The group of CURE economies is the answer.

Kevin Jianjun Tu is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he directs Carnegie’s work on China’s energy and climate policies.

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