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The Scouting Report: President Obama and the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference

Next week, President Barack Obama will join world leaders and scientists from over nearly 200 nations in Copenhagen for the fifteenth United Nations Conference on Climate Change, now underway. Although a binding, international climate change agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol is an unlikely outcome, the nations attending the Copenhagen conference will discuss near-term solutions including emissions-reduction targets, as well as short-term financial help for developing nations managing the climatic effects of industrialization.

Kemal Derviş, vice president and director of Global Economy and Development at Brookings, answered questions about the summit in Copenhagen and President Obama’s plans to tackle climate change. Fred Barbash, Politico senior editor, moderated the discussion.

The transcript of this chat follows.

12:28 Fred Barbash-Moderator: President Barack Obama will join world leaders and scientists from over nearly 200 nations in Copenhagen for the fifteenth United Nations Conference on Climate Change. Although a binding, international climate change agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol is an unlikely outcome, the nations attending the Copenhagen conference will discuss near-term solutions including emissions-reduction targets, as well as short-term financial help for developing nations managing the climatic effects of industrialization.

Kemal Dervis, vice president and director of Global Economy and Development at Brookings, is on on hand to answer your questions about the summit in Copenhagen and President Obama’s plans to tackle climate change.

Welcome readers and welcome Kemal. Let’s get started.

12:28 Kemal Derviş: Thanks for having me Fred!

12:29 [Comment From Laurie: ] What do you expect Barack Obama will bring to the negotiations?

12:30 Kemal Derviş: I think the most important thing is that President Obama will bring to Copenhagen a strong commitment by the US to deal with the overall problem of climate change. A new political will that while it may take time and while it may be difficult the US is committed to build solutions in cooperation with others.

12:30 [Comment From Adrianna: ] What are some key issues that a new global agreement should include?

12:32 Kemal Derviş: The first thing that is needed is an overall framework. I say framework, not a detailed blueprint. A rigid blueprint would be too constraining and runs the risk of getting us into deadlocks. But a framework where different countries can make commitments that are appropriate to their own stage of development and their own ability to deal with the problem in a way that these efforts can be compared.

12:34 Kemal Derviş: Within that framework, we need a road map to reduce global CO2e emissions by about 50% by mid-century. We need financing for new technology and we need support for adaptation - particularly in the poorest countries.

12:35 [Comment From Gary: ] Does it seem like countries will be able to overcome these issues this time around?

12:36 Kemal Derviş: The way to success will be to focus on the long-term gains rather than get bogged down by endless fine-tuning, spurious precision and excessive stress on distributional issues.

12:38 Kemal Derviş: There will not be some kind of global central plan, and indeed there should not be. But there can be many national approaches using all kinds of policy instruments that result in innovation, cleaner energy, less carbon intensive growth and substantial decreases in greenhouse gas emissions.

12:40 Kemal Derviş: If momentum can be built in that way, countries and businesses will find that investing in clean technologies, innovating in renewables and energy conservation will become increasingly profitable and allow them to compete better in the marketplace over coming decades.

12:40 [Comment From Kathy: ] Do you think Obama will be willing to accept an agreement under which the US and other developed countries commit to reduce CO2 emissions by 17% if China and India do not agree to specific reductions in their emissions.

12:42 Kemal Derviş: Good question! As usual in such negotiations agreement is likely to emerge only at the very end. It is now recognized much more widely than a decade ago that climate protection needs proactive cooperation of all major emitters, including the rapidly growing developing countries.

12:44 Kemal Derviş: All reductions in emissions have to travel through reductions in the carbon intensity of producing GDP. So, whether a country announces directly a reduction in carbon emissions, or does it more indirectly by announcing a reduction in the carbon to GDP ratio, produces similar results. The outcome of course depends on how ambitious either type of target actually is.

12:47 Kemal Derviş: China announced a willingness to reduce carbon intensity of GDP by 40-45%. Given that the Chinese economy is likely to grow very rapidly, this will not lead to an actual reduction in total greenhouse gas emissions. But it would, if realized, constitute a major effort in terms of building a greener economy and would make it easier later on to actually reduce Chinese emissions.

12:49 Kemal Derviş: Given that per person China still emits only about one fourth of what the US emits and about half of what the EU emits, the Chinese announcement was very significant. A key question for such announcements, of course, is how binding they will be. That will probably constitute a big part of the negotiations.

12:49 [Comment From Guest: ] How do you think doubts about the validity of the science of global warming raised in the recent leaked e-mails will affect the conference and its outcome?

12:52 Kemal Dervis: My understanding as an economist of climate science is that there is now very strong evidence that greenhouse gas emissions are a key contributing factor to climate change and that there has been a slow, but significant, trend toward global warming that poses a risk to many aspects of human existence. The speed of the process, the exact feedback loops, and the magnitude of the risk are uncertain and I believe that we will continue to learn more as scientific work proceeds.

12:55 Kemal Derviş: Uncertainty, however, should not be an excuse for inaction. There is a risk for the world as a whole and the fact that we don't know how rapidly that risk will grow is an argument for trying to learn more while insuring ourselves against potentially very damaging events. Uncertainty means that things could be better than we think at this stage, but it also means that things could get worse more rapidly. When we drive we observe a speed limit not because there is a certainty of an accident but because there is danger of an accident!

12:56 Kemal Derviş: Reducing emissions in order to keep the amount of carbon in the atmosphere under control is a little bit like prudent driving.

12:57 Kemal Derviş: Another aspect of the problem that we cannot forget is that some communities in coastal regions and on small islands or the ecologically most vulnerable parts of the world are already being affected by climate change. For them, the issue is not insurance against future risk, but dealing with an immediate challenge to their livelihoods.

12:58 [Comment From Len: ] is there a fair way to get developing countries like India and China on board?

1:00 Kemal Derviş: India and China are engaging in the debate and declaring their willingness to contribute much more than they have ever done. India in particular, but also China, is on average still a very poor country. Access to energy remains a dream for many millions. It is important to remember the extreme deprivation that is still affecting large parts of the population.

1:02 Kemal Derviş: At the same time China and India themselves will face negative consequences of climate change in their coastal areas as well as through water scarcity and threats to food production. In their own interest, they should contribute to a global solution, but the richer countries should agree to a framework of burden sharing that allows them to develop and lift their populations out of poverty.

1:02 [Comment From Wes: ] Will Copenhagen touch on the concept of deforestation at all? This is a huge contributing factor to carbon emissions and it doesn't seem to be discussed enough.

1:05 Kemal Derviş: Deforestation contributes roughly about 1/4 of the CO2e emissions worldwide and is therefore a huge part of the problem. It is very important that a framework agreement incorporates deforestation and land use in to the set of solutions that are being built. It is interesting that both Brazil and Indonesia have stated their readiness to adopt ambitious forest protection targets provided that they receive significant financing support.

1:06 Kemal Derviş: Since the Brazilian and Indonesian rainforests provide a large carbon storing benefit to the world as a whole, it would seem entirely fair and of benefit to all to help them protect and manage these forests in a way that is also conducive to their own economic development.

1:07 [Comment From Chen Yang: ] What's the basis of the UN general secretary's optimism for the Climate Summit in Copenhagen to reach an agreement?

1:09 Kemal Derviş: Ever since he took office, secretary general Ban Ki Moon has made climate protection one of his top priorities. The optimism he expressed in Copenhagen must be based on a judgement that the major players do want an agreement. The fact that President Obama is traveling to Copenhagen is, of course, one of the strong signal in that direction. But there have also been signals from Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, South Africa, and several other countries including of course the EU.

1:11 Kemal Derviş: There will not be a detailed blueprint in Copenhagen, but agreement on a well articulated framework agreement on a set of direct emission reduction targets, or indirect targets in the form of GDP intensity, and agreement also on urgent financing for adaptation now seems feasible and would constitute a success.

1:12 Kemal Derviş: Of course, the effort will have to continue. The framework will have to become more precise over the years. And, the world should be ready to adjust to whatever new information climate science may provide.

1:14 [Comment From Paul: ] Does Obama have Congress on board this time around with climate negotiations?

1:17 Kemal Derviş: The House and the Senate approaches to climate policy in the US are not too far apart. The degree of ambition in the 17% emission reduction over 2005 levels proposed by the House and the 20% considered in the Senate is much less than what Europe is willing to commit to. On the other hand, past history and geography is different in the US and compared to what appeared politically feasible a few years ago, 17-20% reduction compared to 2005, is actually a major step for the US.

1:19 Kemal Derviş: President Obama has also indicated much more ambitious long-term targets. While negotiating tactics preclude a lot of mutual approval messages between countries, this new willingness to engage and shoulder responsibility by the US is widely recognized and appreciated in the world. It is clear, of course, that the US expects other major emitters to commit to an overall framework.

1:19 [Comment From Sam: ] Can you discuss the merits or potential offered by carbon taxes vs. a cap-and-trade plan?

1:23 Kemal Derviş: A cap-and-trade system where emission permits must be bought and are fully tradeable would in fact be very close to a carbon tax. But, two key points here are: first, that for businesses to invest in low carbon technology including renewables and for households to adjust behavior and economize on carbon, the price of carbon must be significantly higher.

1:25 Kemal Derviş: And second, the revenues generated either by a carbon tax or by the sale of allowances need not signify higher overall taxes. Every country could choose to give that revenue back to its citizens through cuts in other taxes, such as income taxes or social security contributions. Every country could choose a fiscally neutral way of implementing pricing that leads to emission reductions. Some countries that want to lower public debt could use it for that purpose.

1:26 [Comment From Tyler: ] What effect do you think Copenhagen will have on US Policy towards Asia?

1:28 Kemal Derviş: Interesting question! The US, China and India are three major players in Copenhagen. If the US can come to an agreement with these 2 emerging Asian giants in Copenhagen that could have a very positive impact on overall US-Asia relations and would make it easier to deal with other problems such as trade, currency issues, or nuclear proliferation.

1:28 Fred Barbash-Moderator: Thanks to all who participated here today. Smart questions; smart answers. Thanks so much Kemal for your time and knowledge.

1:28 Kemal Derviş: Thanks for having me!

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