Wasting time on climate negotiations
SNL Energy:  Let’s Be Frank
Tuesday, December 04, 2012 10:36 AM ET
By: Frank Maisano

The views and opinions expressed in this piece represent only those of the author and not necessarily those of SNL.

As the United Nations climate meetings roll on in Doha, Qatar, it is finally time to admit the U.N. process is broken and will never be fixed. Already, we have wasted years looking for solutions that will never be achieved.

From its origins to perhaps its most significant moment when negotiators decided on a protocol in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997 to today, nations have done little more than talk, posture and argue rather than achieve meaningful policies that could result in emissions reductions.

One of the reasons lies in the fact that emissions reductions were never about the environment for most countries. While it always has been a top priority for the environmental activist community, the process for most countries, both developed and developing, has always been about competitive economic advantage in the global marketplace. This notion has always undermined efforts to develop real, meaningful emissions gains.

Certainly, every year, international negotiators put on a good face, travel to exotic places like Morocco, Cancun, South Africa and Rio, as well as some colder, but also wonderful, locations to try to address the challenges of climate change. Unfortunately, with 194 countries debating every aspect of economic policy, future growth, sustainability and poverty, the process always breaks down.

Most often, it is in terms of developing countries versus developed countries, but the more difficult breakdown often occurs within each group. Developing countries are radically different, with the more advanced and growing economies (and therefore, significant emissions), such as China, India, South Korea and Mexico, having much different needs, goals and objectives than poor or island economies that have no other leverage. These countries are often the ones that will also be impacted first so they have some rightly deserved sympathy, even from those that are as self-righteous as your typical U.N. bureaucrat.

As well, on the developed country front, the U.S. is always mocked by its European counterparts who see themselves as piously superior to their western competitors even as they take advantage of every negotiating loophole for competitive economic advantage. Yet despite nearly 20 years of negotiations led by both Democrats and Republicans, U.S. policy negotiations have surprisingly remained incredibly consistent.

This policy balance, much to the chagrin of the U.S. and global activist community, has pretty much remained intact because the U.S. demanded early on that the negotiations be a global process that included all players, a stumbling block that large-emitting developing countries never have and never will get over, even as they start to pass developed countries in emissions.

Another reason for this consistency across U.S. administrations is rooted in the active role the U.S. Senate played prior to the Kyoto Protocol. Then, senators went on record unanimously (95-0) demanding they would not approve any treaty did not include developing countries for reductions of emissions in the same compliance period, expecting such an exemption would result in serious economic harm to the U.S. It also required an assessment of detailed financial costs and other impacts on the economy. These simple requirements have been the fundamental death knell for international efforts ever since. They are understandable to a skeptical public, they are reasonable to anyone who understands costs and they are probably unattainable under the current process, technology and mechanisms in use.

Despite all the wasted time, the process has spurned a reasonably interesting success. Early on, despite some infatuation with Al Gore’s freshly negotiated Kyoto treaty, the Clinton administration realized it needed to figure out a way to engage large developing countries. This continued aggressively under President George W. Bush, who was roundly criticized by activists because of his ill-fated decision to reject the treaty process as it was already imploding.

While there was a temporary hope for the U.N. with Bush’s rejection, which galvanized most nations to cut a deal to implement the treaty without the U.S., it was still clear over the next few years that the process would never work without the participation of large emitters like China and India as well as the U.S.

That is why in 2007 the Bush administration fundamentally changed the game by making the issue a discussion point among the major emitters at international conferences like the G-20. Not only are the right people at the table, but it places the climate issue in its proper context among other major issues like the global economy, technology partnership and international competitiveness.

President Barack Obama took this policy one step further in 2010 in Copenhagen, where he brought major emitters into a room and carved out a going-forward deal without the typical U.N. process-wrangling. While that framework has been placed on the back burner as many nations try to recover from the economic downturn, the message was unmistakable. Never again could a deal emerge from the U.N. process unless the major emitters decided it.

It is a tough message for climate campaigners to hear. Their 20 years of negotiating, pressure tactics and political stunts have produced nothing except bureaucratic infighting and lots of expense reports. But now, with the right pieces in place and major emitters at the table together, perhaps we can end the U.N.’s bureaucratic climate posturing and move on to something that has a modest chance for producing successful, politically obtainable and meaningful results.