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American Leadership Required for Progress on Global Climate and Energy Governance

Part of the rooftop photovoltaic array is seen on the roof of the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory Research Support Facility (RFS) in Golden, Colorado (REUTERS/Rick Wilking).

With a growing recognition of the severity of climate threats, we are beginning to see what I call the early beginning of the early beginning on climate governance—moves towards a governing structure that will help us manage our impact on the environment. These efforts are by no means been perfect, and several challenges still remain. However, with a strengthening hand in the global energy landscape, it is time for the U.S. to lead progress towards a global energy and climate system.

New Hope for Climate and Energy Governance

As recently as five years ago, there was little hope for climate and energy governance. The 2009 U.N. Climate Conference in Copenhagen was heralded as a significant opportunity, but was ultimately mired in confusion and doubt.

Recently, however, there has been a proliferation of institutions for different aspects of global energy governance. Now, a veritable flotilla of international and regional bodies, groups and institutions, formal and informal, are set at the problem of trying to manage different parts of the energy dynamic.

…But Challenges Still Remain

Collectively, though, these new initiatives, and the older organizations they both complement and compete with, are far from forming an effective system of governance that can guide us through the resource and climate challenges that lie ahead, which include:

  • Managing the new price instability – With changing patterns of oil flows, uncertainty about growth levels in the emerging powers, and the potential for major instability in the Persian Gulf, price volatility will remain a feature of the global energy market. We’ll need to retool the mechanisms we have, primarily the International Energy Agency, to promote price stability.
  • Asia’s contested networks – Investment in energy infrastructure in Asia will set the patterns for energy consumption in Asia for decades—the question of whether the next wave of infrastructure spending in Asia is “green” or “black” is hugely consequential in economic, energy and climate terms. And investment in energy networks in Asia will only be more complicated if geopolitical tensions mount.
  • The revolution is not yet born – We need a revolution built around renewables and efficiency, a revolution that is necessary if we’re to have a hope of attaining a less-than-2-degree rise in average global temperatures.
  • Making energy sustainable – We need to ensure that our energy use is sustainable not just in climate terms, but also in terms of energy access for the poor, the sustainability of energy growth in large developing countries and the impacts of energy prices on food insecurity. U.N. initiatives may provide a good venue for the debate, but do not necessarily have the political space and resources to deliver.

The U.S. is Poised to Lead Renewed Efforts

Though these challenges are large, they aren’t insurmountable. With dedicated leadership, the United States is uniquely positioned to lead efforts at energy and climate governance. It has more capacity than most countries—arguably, more capacity than the rest of the G-20 combined—to push and cajole the evolving global energy governance system into greater effectiveness. And on the climate front, it can use the power of the American market to shift the balance of incentives away from coal and oil and toward a more sustainable mix of gas, renewables and increased efficiency.

Of course, the U.S. cannot force these changes alone. Indeed, some combination of American leadership, shared interests with the emerging powers and G-20 creativity is the most likely channel for knitting a more effective system for energy and climate governance. But American leadership is necessary to move the system forward. With rising energy production, America’s hand in global energy markets is strengthening; time to play it. 

You can read more about energy and climate governance in Bruce Jones' recent paper with David Steven and Emily O’Brien, as well as a forthcoming book with David Steven.

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