At his recent junket in Italy with his G8 colleagues, President Obama came away with little to show for his efforts to advance international cooperation on global warming, a key plank in his platform during the 2008 campaign. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and Energy Secretary Steven Chu arrive in Beijing today to discuss climate change and green technology with the Chinese. Hopefully they'll be more successful at environmental diplomacy than their boss.
But the lack of progress wasn't all Obama's fault. The G8 meeting was a predictably lost opportunity. Some in the group tried to press the United States to accept deep reductions in its greenhouse-gas emissions in preparation for the Copenhagen climate-change summit in December. Despite the Obama administration's commitment to combating climate change, and the passage of the American Clean Energy and Security Act in the House of Representatives, this was doomed to fail. All were left grasping at the same non-binding goals that have been discussed for years. New and creative approaches are needed to change the dynamics of an international process that has gone virtually nowhere in over a decade.
The principal problem in getting a major U.S. commitment is China, whose greenhouse-gas emissions now exceed those of the United States and are growing at a far higher rate. Deep American emissions cuts just won't happen without China making a serious commitment to combat climate change. And it is clear that China and other developing countries simply were not prepared to make that commitment, whether or not President Hu Jintao had stayed at the meetings there instead of returning to China to oversee his government's reaction to violence in Xinjiang. This is unlikely to change anytime soon.
China's government, like India's and many others, is understandably reluctant to accept costly binding limits on emissions that could slow economic development, destroy jobs and possibly contribute to political instability. Despite efforts to reach out, including trips by senior U.S. officials, the Obama administration has thus far failed to win concessions from Beijing to commit to any internationally binding emissions caps. But without such a guarantee, it will be close to impossible for the administration to sign onto an international agreement including deep U.S. cuts that the Senate would ratify. Twin announcements last week-from Harry Reid extending the deadline for Senate committees working on the bill and from Barbara Boxer, Chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, delaying her committees work on the bill until after the summer recess-make clear that there is real resistance to the legislation even among Senate Democrats.
Political pressure on a sympathetic U.S. administration already failed once before due to the Senate's refusal to cooperate. In 1997, the Clinton Administration signed the Kyoto Protocol knowing it would be virtually impossible to win Senate approval. Moreover, Kyoto's targets were modest when set against today's expectations.
While the Bush administration's decision to withdraw abruptly from Kyoto was a major diplomatic misstep that complicated practical cooperation with key European allies, its emphasis on technology made sense and offers the best way around the China impasse. China and other developing countries will adopt the cleaner energy technologies that are necessary to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions only if the technologies are economically compelling or, alternatively, if someone else pays for them.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has proposed an international fund through which developed countries would provide $100 billion per year by 2020 to finance projects to reduce emissions in the developing world. It is a noble and generous offer, but very unlikely to work-especially during a global economic crisis that has many in the developed world worried about competitiveness, outsourcing, and growth in their own countries than about subsidizing development in someone else's.
Focusing on cost-effective new technologies-technologies that would be compelling not only for China or India, but also for the United States and other developed nations-is much more likely to work both politically and practically. We believe an international public-private technology fund could make a real difference in generating these technologies and reducing emissions.
Using this approach, developed countries would have to agree to whatever mild emissions limits are negotiated in Copenhagen (and there is no doubt they will be mild) and simultaneously commit to provide major financial contributions to an international research and development fund-a global venture-capital fund for energy technology. The amount of each government's minimum contribution would be determined by the size of its economy (as is done for most multilateral organizations) and the size of the total contribution would determine each country's voting share in decision-making on investments or grants (either or both of these approaches could be used). Developing countries would also be able to buy into the fund, but would have the option of paying dues calculated on the same economic basis or, alternatively, accepting mandatory emissions limits during Copenhagen negotiations. The countries participating in the fund would share the intellectual-property rights for any technologies developed through fund-supported research and development and would have the right to buy licenses to use the technology from the fund at scaled rates for resale to their own firms. Private investors could also participate in the fund and obtain the right to buy technology licenses, though not the right to sell them to others.
This fund could be structured creatively to accommodate a wide variety of activities and incorporate and build on a number of existing international-technology partnerships. And it could create new incentives for China to participate in international efforts to fight climate change. Best of all, even if Beijing did not participate in the fund, successful technologies would ultimately find their way to into its markets and cut China's emissions. Of course, if China chose not to take part, it would also be giving up a major avenue to becoming a global leader in new energy technologies.
We do not believe that this approach is a silver bullet; the climate-change problem is far too large and complex and requires both mitigation and adaptation strategies. But we do believe it could be one element of a policy to address greenhouse-gas emissions. Perhaps more important, we believe it illustrates the creative and result-oriented thinking without which human-induced climate change cannot be stopped. Only through an unprecedented investment in technology can we hope to make sufficient reductions in greenhouse gases without politically unacceptable damage to national economies.
Vaughan Turekian is chief international officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Paul J. Saunders is Executive Director of The Nixon Center. They served together in the Department of State during the Bush administration.