Lessons Learned Time Lost

The upward trends in greenhouse gas emissions over the last two decades trace tracks of lost time. More than two decades have passed since prominent climate scientists first began calling news media and public attention to the growing urgency of the problem. While the signature of human-induced warming is now clearer than it was then, the basic science and the riskiness of stuffing ever more heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere has never been in doubt among the world's leading scientists.

In the late 1980s, the world experienced a test run for the climate talks to come, as nations negotiated and then ratified the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer and then its subsidiary, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. With the backing of President Ronald Reagan and most of the world's major producers of the regulated gases, the protocol provided a system by which industrial countries phased out the ozone-depleting gases quickly.12

Though rarely recalled today, the Montreal Protocol offers lessons for the climate negotiations of 2009. The U.S. government and chemical manufacturers strongly supported the phaseout of ozone-depleting gases. The agreement allowed developing countries a later timetable and established a global fund to funnel them needed financing from industrial countries. The fund to date has spent $2.3 billion. The agreement defined the dividing line between the two groups by per capita production and consumption. Although the climate problem is far larger and more complex than ozone depletion, each of the elements that help this treaty succeed could contribute to an effective climate agreement.13 By 1994, most of the world's nations, including the United States, had ratified and put into force the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, first agreed to at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992. That treaty expressed two key principles that have guided global climate negotiations ever since. First, humanity should "achieve...stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic [human-induced] interference with the climate system." Second, countries should respond "in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities and their social and economic conditions." In short, stop climate

Sealing the Deal to Save the Climate change before it is too late, and expect the longest-running and worst climate offenders—the wealthier and more industrialized countries—to step up to the head of the line to fix the problem.14

Three years later, most of the world's nations agreed in Kyoto, Japan, to the protocol to the climate change convention. (In diplomacy, protocols are supplements or amendments to existing conventions; either may be called a treaty.) The Kyoto Protocol aimed to drive down the greenhouse gas emissions of industrial countries as a first step in what was planned to be a two-phase process comparable to that of the Montreal Protocol.15 In negotiating the agreement, industrial countries volunteered emission targets in 2012 based on a percentage of what each country's emissions had been in 1990. These targets—averaging a 5-percent emissions reduction among participating countries— were originally intended to be achieved by actual emissions cuts in those countries. To ease fears that such cuts might be too onerous and expensive, however, more flexible mechanisms were allowed—and these quickly became the favored approaches to compliance.16

Under the terms of the Protocol, participating industrial countries can trade unneeded emission allotments among themselves or work together jointly on projects that promise to cut emissions in any other participating industrial country. (These cuts, called Joint Implementation, are done within the European Union and in formerly communist countries like Russia and the Ukraine, where aging and energy-inefficient capital equipment can be improved at a relatively low cost.) Or they can invest in projects that achieve the needed reductions in developing countries through the Clean Development Mechanism, which then can sell those reductions as carbon credits to the investing country.

The CDM is the only inducement for emissions reductions in developing countries. For understandable reasons, purchasers of the emissions credits it offers have been drawn mostly to large-scale projects in countries capable of offering such opportunities. Practically speaking, this means a heavy tilt toward China, India, and a handful of other Asian powers, with little activity in Latin America or sub-Saharan Africa. On top of that, critics have noted that the CDM has produced windfall profits for some investors while failing so far to take much of a bite out of global greenhouse gas emissions. These problems are now well recognized, however, and any new climate agreement is likely to reform this mechanism so that it covers many more emissions-saving activities and reaches many more countries. Or perhaps negotiators will craft new approaches altogether to encourage emissions reductions in developing countries that industrial ones will pay for.17

Though rarely recalled today, the

Montreal Protocol offers lessons for the climate negotiations of 2009.

Like all treaties, the protocol is binding, but penalties for unachieved emissions reductions were deferred into an unknown future. Those who fail to comply must face proportionally greater emissions-reduction obligations following the first "commitment period" from 2008 to 2012. But those obligations and any later commitment period, of course, remain to be negotiated. Some countries, especially in Europe, with its mature economies and generally stable populations, are on track to meet their commitments. Others are experiencing emissions growth that will make the objective much harder. Environmentalists are suing the government of Canada, for example, in an effort to get

Sealing the Deal to Save the Climate

Figure 6-1. Global Carbon Dioxide Emissions, All Sources, 1959-2007

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Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forms (1988); Montreal Protocol goes into effect (1989)

Figure 6-1. Global Carbon Dioxide Emissions, All Sources, 1959-2007

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forms (1988); Montreal Protocol goes into effect (1989)

Framework Kyoto Protocol

Convention adopted (1997;

on Climate went into force

Change (1994) in 2005)

Framework Kyoto Protocol

Convention adopted (1997;

on Climate went into force

Change (1994) in 2005)

Source: Global Carbon Project








it to take its Kyoto promises more seriously.18

The idea that industrial countries would move first on climate change was firmly rooted in principles accepted in the Montreal Protocol and the Framework Convention on Climate Change. But the Kyoto Protocol's perceived "free ride" for developing countries—some of them now becoming major emitters—provided a rationale for the United States to reject the protocol after initially signing it. The country's substantial emissions were thus left unfettered. U.S. ratification would have been far from easy anyway. Even before U.S. delegates in Kyoto signed the new document, back in Washington the Senate voted 95-0 to oppose its ratification on the grounds it would hurt the U.S. economy and leave developing countries, without comparable commitments, at an unfair economic advantage.19

At the time, U.S. emissions were tops in the world. China, rapidly industrializing and with four times the U.S. population of 305 million, has since overtaken the United States in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion and cement production. But it will be many years before any nation approaches the United States in cumulative greenhouse gas emissions. The country's unwillingness to commit to emissions reductions despite this fact is undoubtedly the greatest single obstacle to international action on the problem. Yet with a new president in office already having declared his willingness to limit emissions,

2009 is the most promising year for real action since ratification of the climate convention in 1994.20

Although some emissions have undoubtedly been avoided, none of the scientific and diplomatic efforts on climate has had an obvious impact on the overall global increase in carbon dioxide emissions. (See Figure 6-1.) Although less well documented, the story is similar for other gases and for carbon dioxide from deforestation and land degradation.21

There is, however, a real victory for which both the Montreal and Kyoto Protocols deserve thanks. Atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases would have grown even faster had neither treaty gone into effect. New international institutions and financial instruments designed to reduce global emissions are riding gingerly forward on training wheels. Chief among the Kyoto Protocol's accomplishments is the remarkable emergence of carbon markets described earlier, which has as its valued commodity, in effect,

Sealing the Deal to Save the Climate bad things—carbon dioxide emissions—that are not happening. Global emissions levels have nonetheless so far responded more to the vagaries of the global economy than to diplomacy. The world needs much more effective mechanisms for reversing course in greenhouse gas emissions as rapidly and dramatically as possible, beginning now.22

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