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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Playing the Expectations Game as Copenhagen Looms

Originally posted at the Breakthrough Institute blog

It appears that there is an effort underway (whether coordinated or just coincident) from the Obama Administration, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and United Nations to place a reality check on expectations for United States climate policy progress in advance of the international climate negotiations in Copenhagen this December.

Yesterday, IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri told UK newspapers that Barack Obama would have a "revolution on his hands" if he tried to implement binding cuts in emissions on the scale that the IPCC's scientific consensus recommends.

"He [Obama] is not going to say by 2020 I'm going to reduce emissions by 30 per cent," Pachauri said. "He'll have a revolution on his hands. He has to do it step by step."

Pachauri's word's echo those of U.S. special climate envoy, Todd Stern, who recently stated that the 25-40% emissions cuts called for by the IPCC are "beyond the realm of the feasible" in the U.S. Congress. Stern called for a focus on "the art of the possible," saying "we need to be guided both by science and by common sense."

Now, UN climate czar, Yvo de Boer tells Bryan Walsh in a TIME interview that he doesn't expect cap and trade from the U.S. before Copenhagen either.

Here's the key excerpt from Walsh's interview with de Boer (emph. added):

"[Walsh:] The conventional wisdom is that, with everything else on the government's plate, we're unlikely to see carbon cap and trade legislation passed in Congress before the Copenhagen summit at the end of the year. How important is it that something is in place by then?

[De Boer:] I'd agree that legislation is not going to be passed by Copenhagen, but it will be well advanced by then. The international community is keenly interested in seeing what steps America is making at home to get its emissions under control, but it also wants to see what the Administration says it will do. If the Administration in Copenhagen commits to a target that is good enough for the international community, that will work. It's up to the U.S. see how the target will be implemented nationally."
This I would say is good news. The UN's climate point person is essentially telling Obama that victory doesn't necessarily equal passing cap and trade before Copenhagen. De Boer seems to be trying to (subtly but critically) redefine expectations and reset the goal posts for Obama, giving him room to maneuver.

De Boer is basically saying that it would be enough for Barack Obama to say the U.S. is aiming for a reduction of some target by some point, but the international community is going to give Obama some flexibility about what policies he wants to use to get there. Obama could even presumably say, "We're doing a national renewable electricity standard, efficiency standards and investments, and investment in clean energy technology development and deployment to get there and drop cap and trade" (for now, or forever).

It seems there is a growing recognition that the widespread expectation that Obama would deliver a comprehensive climate bill before Copenhagen has set an impossible deadline for the American President. Now, key members of both the Administration and the international community are seemingly trying to temper expectations and open up some critical space for Obama to maneuver in.

On expectations for the Copenhagen meeting itself, here's the excerpt:
"Is Copenhagen still an "all or nothing" deadline? Or is there still wiggle room if the world fails to agree on a new treaty?

You have to do it in Copenhagen. There is tremendous political momentum internationally to come to an agreement, and if you let that slip the momentum and enthusiasm will gradually dissipate and things will become more difficult. But having said that, I'm not under the illusion that every final little detail of how the agreement will work in practice will be finalized in Copenhagen. A certain amount of engineering has to be done."
When asked if the global economic crisis will present a challenge for international climate efforts, de Boer says "don't think the enthusiasm has been dented. ... But clearly this is a difficult time to mobilize the financial resources for international cooperation, and that poses a challenge."

Montreal Protocol or Global Marshall Plan?

Finally, Walsh asks an excellent pointed question about the role of technology innovation and asks if the global transition to a new, low-carbon energy infrastructure should really be the primary focus, rather than commitments to emissions targets and timetables. De Boer unfortunately responds with rather conventional thinking about the role of regulation and carbon pricing in driving innovation, without even touching the potential of an international technology development effort to rapidly accelerate our transition to a low-carbon energy economy.
There are those who say that climate change is primarily a question of technology -- that we need to change the way we use energy, and only research and development will do that, not UN mandates. Why is the UNFCCC process important?

It's important because you have to drive change. Automakers will only begin to look for low emissions technology if they think the government is likely to regulate toward low emissions technology. There has to be a sense of urgency out there. We still live in a world where the cost of pollution is not yet part of the price, where you can as a factory emit unlimited greenhouse gases, without having to pay for the environmental consequences. Unless we begin to change that, there is no incentive to switch to more renewable energy and energy efficiency. Technology doesn't happen by itself.
You're right Mr. do Boer, technology doesn't happen by itself. Nor does it happen without an active, engaged government role, making major public investments to drive innovation and the commercialization and widespread deployment of new technologies.

De Boer and the rest of the leaders in the international climate talks should be reading up on the history of technology innovation and the relative roles of regulation and investment before they meet again at Copenhagen. And they should put aside the Montreal Protocol on CFCs and instead look for more relevant models of international technology, industry and economic partnerships. At it's root, the international climate and energy challenge is more about a new kind of sustainable global development partnership than it is about coming together to control something as trivial as an ozone-depleting refrigeration chemical, after all.

We should be looking to initiatives like the Marshall Plan and the European Coal and Steel Partnership for more relevant models of international cooperation. These initiatives saw nations who were killing each other in the battlefields of World War II just a few years prior come together to make major common investments in their collective future, leading to decades of sustained peace and shared economic prosperity. After looking at examples like these, de Boer would likely have a different answer to Walsh's excellent question.

After all, underneath all of the debates about targets and timetables lies the critical challenge of replacing the entire global energy infrastructure with a low-carbon energy system, all while increasing global energy supplies to power development in the Chinas, Indias and Brazils of the world. In short, our climate targets all rest on the success of a global effort to make clean energy cheap. It's still unclear if a discussion about how to accomplish that critical objective will even be on the table at Copenhagen. Stay tuned...

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