Op-Ed

Recipe for European Climate Leadership

Nigel Purvis

Tomorrow, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – this year’s recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, along with Al Gore – will issue its most comprehensive scientific assessment. Five years in the making, the IPCC 4th Synthetis Report describes in chilling detail the seriousness of the climate crisis and the urgency of action. Governments will take up the report when they meet in early December in Bali, Indonesia, to decide what international arrangements should follow the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. Decisions made now will influence not only the next decade of global warming diplomacy but possibly also our chance of averting catastrophic climate change.

Predictably and unfortunately, European leaders and President Bush continue to champion fundamentally different approaches. Under the Bush plan for post-2012, each nation would decide for itself whether and how to reduce its emissions, new international commitments would not be legally binding and U.S. emissions would continue to grow for years. Europe is right to reject this approach as inadequate and to press for ambitious, measurable and binding commitments from industrialized nations, along with less stringent but no less meaningful engagement by China and other rapidly developing countries (whose per capita emissions and income remain relatively low). Given this seemingly unbridgeable divide, here’s how Europe should proceed.

Lead at home. The world is watching to see if Europe’s internal policies match its foreign policy rhetoric. Europe’s stated willingness to reduce its emissions 30 percent by 2020 if other major emitters also act is an important gesture. But all European nations (not just Britain, Sweden and Germany) must demonstrate preferably before Bali that they have the political will to actually deliver on climate promises.

Do not wait for Godot. Europe now understands that there will be no Nixon-goes-to-China moment. George Bush will end his Presidency on the wrong side of climate history by resisting domestic carbon regulation and fighting firm international commitments. The next U.S. administration, regardless of political party, will be better. With further prodding, the Congress may soon enact national climate legislation similar to Europe’s emissions trading system. Europe should negotiate in Bali in good faith and remain open to worthwhile new ideas but it must look beyond the Bush administration.

Focus on the U.S. Congress. Getting the United States to ratify a new global agreement is less urgent than convincing the Congress to enact domestic laws that would actually reduce America’s emissions. In the U.S. political system, domestic laws are more easily enacted and enforced than international treaties. Plus, U.S. domestic action is a precondition for a meaningful global agreement involving all key nations. Not only will China, India and possibly even Japan reject potentially costly action if the U.S. continues to dither, but the U.S. Senate will resist approving any new climate treaty until national laws are in place.

Think beyond targets. Europe is right to insist on substantial, measurable and enforceable climate commitments. But Europe should remain open to new types of commitments, such as agreements on energy efficiency, renewable energy and deforestation. These narrower efforts can complement and, for certain categories of countries, substitute for Kyoto-style national emission targets. A mix of commitments would better reflect the diversity of national circumstances.

Don’t just think globally. Climate change is a global problem that requires more than just global solutions. Europe should embrace ‘layered’ or ‘bottom up’ cooperation, including agreements made among smaller groupings of countries. A bilateral agreement that linked a future U.S. emissions trading system to Europe’s existing carbon market would enhance global cooperation rather than undermine it. The United Nations should remain the global climate forum – the place where countries judge whether arrangements in place are adequate and equitable.

Insist on action by China too. Rapidly developing nations, such as China, India and Brazil, ought not to be held to the same standard as richer nations. However, Europe must not let these emerging economies off the hook in Bali simply for the short-term benefit of either isolating the United States or reaching a global consensus that creates the illusion of progress for the European public. Developing nations are vulnerable to climate change and they do not wish to be seen as impeding progress. These nations also will benefit financially from participating in global carbon markets. Industrialized nations must condition market access by developing nations on new commitments and real action. If Europe is firm now and America comes around soon as expected, rapidly industrializing nations will do their fair share.

Be patient. If consensus on these terms is not possible in Bali, Europe must be prepared to defer major decisions on the shape of the next U.N. climate treaty until after the Bush administration ends in January 2009. Political conditions around the world for a strong climate framework will improve when U.S. policies also improve. Europe’s call for concluding a new agreement in 2009, therefore, is not realistic or helpful. A new American president will need time to gain the Senate’s approval of a new senior negotiating team and new climate policies. Other nations will then need time to react the American proposals. Still more time will be required to work out concrete treaty provisions. This calendar is highly unfortunate but unavoidable.

Admirably, Europe wants to lead on climate change. Despite the obvious need for urgent action, patient and adaptive European diplomacy will best serve the world.

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