The collapse of the Copenhagen climate change conference in December killed the Kyoto Protocol—and not a moment too soon.
Since the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change came into effect, there have been 15 Conferences of the Parties (COP) in which 192 nations have tried to hammer out a response of man-made global warming. These meetings resulted in the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, which came into effect in 2005. Under the Kyoto Protocol, 37 nations agreed to cut their emissions of greenhouse gases by 2012 to about 5 percent below the level they emitted in 1990. The United States never got around to ratifying the protocol and withdrew from it completely in 2001. In the meantime, only the countries in the European Union set up a carbon market as a way to implement carbon rationing aimed at meeting their Kyoto Protocol targets. Most other signatories simply ignored their greenhouse gas reduction targets.
Originally, the Copenhagen meeting, COP-15, was supposed to result in a binding international treaty that would establish new and deeper greenhouse gas reduction targets that would come into effect once the Kyoto Protocol expired in 2012. This goal was jettisoned a month before the COP convened when it became apparent that the goals of the developing countries and the developed countries were too far apart to bridge.
So then the Copenhagen meeting was supposed to come up with a strong political agreement that would set overall global greenhouse gas reduction targets and provide climate change damage aid to poor countries. The developing countries wanted commitments for hundreds of billions of dollars in annual climate change aid from the rich countries. On the other hand, the rich developed countries wanted some kind of enforceable emission reduction commitments from big emerging economies such China, India, Indonesia, and Brazil. These countries have no obligations to reduce their emissions under the Kyoto Protocol. Ultimately, it is not too much to say that the Copenhagen conference collapsed over deep differences between the world's number one and number two emitters of carbon dioxide, China and the United States, respectively.
Prior to the Copenhagen meeting, China announced that it would reduce its carbon intensity by 40 to 45 percent by 2020. Note that this is not a cut in actual emissions. In fact, China's emissions in 2020 could be double what they were 2005. Instead, China was pledging to emit less carbon dioxide per unit of economic production. Basically, China was promising to speed up the normal economic process in which the constant drive of competition pushes industries to continuously cut costs by reducing the amount of energy they use to produce goods and services. For example, the United States has cut its carbon emissions per dollar of GDP by about 45 percent since 1980, largely without government intervention.
For its part, the Obama administration offered to cut actual U.S. emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. This goal is in line with the Waxman-Markey climate change bill passed by the House of Representatives in June. Many environmental activists wanted bigger commitments from the U.S. and decried the Obama administration's "lack of ambition." The Obama administration welcomed China's commitment, but insisted on outside auditing to make sure that China was keeping its promises. China balked, asserting that such auditing would violate its sovereignty. Both the U.S. and China refused to budge. Meanwhile 120 presidents, prime ministers, and other potentates had gathered in Copenhagen where they thought they were going to be hailed as saviors of the planet's climate. That didn't happen.
Instead, in the last hours of the Copenhagen conference, a three page Copenhagen Accord was worked out after President Barack Obama interrupted a meeting between leaders from China, India, Brazil, and South Africa. The five countries presented their Accord on a more or less take-it-or-leave-it basis to the other 187 countries meeting in Copenhagen. The Accord was not adopted, which requires consensus, but instead the COP "took note of" the document. Under the Accord, all countries are supposed to submit their commitments and goals for cutting greenhouse gas emissions by the end of this month. However, only about 30 countries so far have agreed to sign on. Monitoring and enforcement of Accord commitments are to be worked out in future international meetings.
So now what? It turns out that President George W. Bush has already paved the way for President Obama. In September 2007, Bush convened the Major Economies Meeting on Energy Security and Climate Change in Washington, D.C. The meeting included representatives from the world's 16 biggest economies: Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, the United Kingdom, the United States, plus the European Union. Collectively, these countries emit about 80 percent of the world's greenhouse gases. President Bush urged the representatives to set a long term goal for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and argued that the best way to address climate change was through developing low-carbon energy technologies.
Last April, the Obama administration convened the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate. Obama's forum membership is identical to Bush's meeting membership. The initial goal was to "generate the political leadership necessary to achieve a successful outcome at the UN climate change negotiations that will convene this December in Copenhagen." Actually, the Copenhagen Accord is less ambitious than the Forum's Declaration issued in July at its leadership meeting in Italy. In fact, he Accord's recognition that the "increase in global temperature should be below 2 degrees Celsius" was first noted in the forum's Declaration. In addition, the Declaration promised to set a global goal for when greenhouse gas emissions would peak and to identify a global goal for substantially reducing global emissions by 2050 at Copenhagen. That didn't happen.
Deputy Special Envoy for Climate Change, Jonathan Pershing, recently told the Guardian that the Obama administration will sideline the cumbersome United Nations climate negotiations process. Pershing noted that it is "impossible to imagine a negotiation of enormous complexity where you have a table of 192 countries involved in all the detail." So instead, the Obama administration and leaders of the other major economies will negotiate among themselves how each of them will address man-made global warming. Since these 16 countries are responsible for emitting the vast majority of greenhouse gases, Pershing correctly observed, "We are not really worried what Chad does. We are not really worried about what Haiti says it is going to do about greenhouse gas emissions." The Copenhagen collapse gives President Obama the opportunity to jettison the Kyoto-style carbon rationing scheme passed by the House of Representatives in June and work out smarter and less economically damaging ways to address man-made global warming. Let's hope he makes use of it.
Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is available from Prometheus Books.