On the Record

U.N. Climate Change Conference: Thinking Beyond Kyoto

The United Nation’s climate talks have begun in Bali with participants from nearly 200 countries.  Carlos Pascual, vice president and director of Foreign Policy at Brookings, says the negotiations are aimed at producing a pact that will replace the Kyoto Protocol – which expires in 2012.

“We have to think of Bali as the beginning of a process.  It will bring together 190 countries that are part of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.  And, what they will start are the negotiations that lead, eventually, to some form of agreement among those parties for a new framework on climate change.  Some point to a goal of reaching an agreement by the end of December 2009 in Copenhagen.  And, in reality, that’s going to be a stretch because it will be the beginning of a new administration here in the United States and it will be difficult to achieve any kind of international consensus without the U.S. being on board.  So, the key thing from Bali is to get the right kinds of principals that begin a process of negotiations that is serious and credible … a focus on goals that can be achieved over the long term.  Goals related to temperature and the restriction of carbon emissions … a focus on the kinds of principals that can be embodied in a long term agreement. 

“For example, that there will be provision for dealing with science and technology and technology dissemination, a way to facilitate investment; not just in the rich countries but in the poor countries as well; not just in energy efficiency technologies but even helping the 1.3 billion people in poor countries who don’t even have access to electricity.  A goal to provide mechanisms to address issues of adaptation, for example, those countries that are going to be affected by rising sea levels or increasing decertification – how to help them cope with these issues.  And, finally, a goal for addressing issues related to rain forests because 25-to-30-percent of carbon emissions are caused by the reduction of rain forests.  These are the kinds of things that can be put on the table and agreed to in principal and, in effect, begin to create, in a sense, a funnel that will bring together inputs and from different parts of the world and different nations to eventually bring us to some form of new international consensus. …

“I think one of the things that we have to understand is why this problem is so difficult, why it’s hard to reach an agreement. It doesn’t matter where the next unit of carbon is emitted.  Whether it comes from Detroit or Beijing, or Delhi or New Castle it still has the same impact of putting more carbon into the atmosphere. As a result of that you need every country that is major emitter of carbon to participate in order to have a real impact on the problem. It becomes more complicated because countries like China and India will look at the industrialized world and say, ‘You know it was you, the industrialized world, that actually created the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to begin with, so why should we pay the principal cost?’  And, making it even harder, it doesn’t matter where you are in the world, you’re still going to feel the effects.  Whether you’re in Bali or Bangladesh or whether you’re in the Midwest, for example. And, as a result of warming temperatures there’s less snow and less melt-off and less water that’s available in places like Las Vegas or in Denver. In effect, all of us have a stake in this and all of us have to be part of the solution, and the United States has to play a leadership role. And the fact that the United States and China and India have approached this with such hesitation has made it extraordinarily difficult to actually get traction on some form of effective set of negotiations. …

“I think it’s absolutely unimaginable to think that China is going to limit its growth rates in order to comply with some form of international climate change agreement. But, what could be possible is to establish some fund or investment facility that can help cover the cost of financing the differential between business-as-usual investments, in economic growth in China, and more energy efficient technologies, which can, in fact, begin to deal with the problem. If we don’t deal with this issue in China, for example, by 2030 China will have added enough new carbon plants to equal the total outputs of the European Union—so the addition of another European Union.  And so, it underscores why it’s critical to address those types of questions.”