Thursday, September 06, 2007

Sage Advice on Climate

Yesterday's Washington Post op-ed on climate change by former Secretary of State George P. Shultz is notable for its approach to reconciling the competing interests of developed and developing countries with regard to greenhouse gas emissions, past, present and future. This is one of the thorniest problems in the diplomacy of climate change, and quite possibly the biggest roadblock impeding an accord to replace the Kyoto Protocol. Secretary Shultz describing the key principles and learnings from the Montreal Protocol for dealing with ozone-depleting chemicals, and suggests that they ought to be applied to climate change. He also offers practical advice to the negotiators. From source and substance, these ideas deserve wide attention.

In the last few years, the simple picture of the US as the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs) has been complicated by the emergence of large emitters in the developing world, notably China, which by some estimates has already surpassed our current output of the main gases contributing to global warming. GHGs from big developing countries are growing at a much faster rate than in the US or EU, as these countries build infrastructure and pass through more energy-intensive economic stages, while relying on carbon-intensive primary energy endowments. Of course the comparison looks quite different in per-capita terms, with China and India lagging US emissions/person by a wide margin. Throw in the wide disparity in historical emissions and you have all the ingredients for a classic deadlock of competing perceptions.

This issue is important for the US and our participation in a global climate-change agreement for several reasons. While some Americans see an inherent equity in allowing developing countries the same chance to develop that we had, others, including economists, politicians and policy makers, recognize that an agreement that constrains the emissions of the G8 or OECD countries without capping those from China, India, Brazil, etc. will merely postpone the consequences of climate change by a few years, at best. And with a significant proportion of China's emissions attributable to products exported to the US, the problem crosses into the realm of trade, industrial and labor policies. Perhaps as importantly, the unwillingness of these countries to approach climate change on the basis of the absolute cuts in emissions required of the developed world creates convenient cover for a wide range of other objections.

That's why I think Mr. Shultz's message is important and timely. Here is a key figure of an administration with impeccable conservative credentials pointing out the need for an agreement covering essentially all of the world's man-made greenhouse gas emissions, and suggesting that it must be structured in a way that takes into account the widely varying national priorities and capabilities of the parties.

I don't get the impression he thinks this will be easy. The appropriate handling of intellectual property alone could would require intensive and far-reaching negotiations, as Mr. Shultz of all people certainly realizes. But he does seem to imply that any approach to a global agreement on greenhouse gases that ignores these principles will be difficult or impossible. That doesn't mean abandoning our concerns about the competitive advantages that would accrue from a treaty that doesn't treat every country exactly the same, but it does mean negotiating in good faith, with enough leeway to build the kind of compromises necessary to bring China, India and other developing countries into the process as full participants. Mr. Shultz's advice might also provide a useful basis for a pragmatic environmental platform for the eventual Republican Presidential nominee.

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