Monday, December 14, 2009

Cash Is King, Even at Copenhagen

Although apparently brief, the suspension of the Copenhagen climate conference after a walkout by the Group of 77 developing countries confirms that the talks are as much about money as about healing the world's climate. It's not just that the G77 wants the Kyoto limits on the emissions of developed countries enforced, while leaving their own emissions uncapped; it also wants the developed world to kick in sizable sums--much bigger than the 2.4 billion Euros per year offered by the EU--to cover the improvements in energy efficiency and renewable energy that would enable them to tackle the growth of their own emissions. There's a solid argument there, though it is not the guilt-based logic of "carbon debt" that I explored a few weeks ago.

An op-ed in the Saturday Wall St. Journal got me thinking about this issue over the weekend, before the G77 delegates walked out of the COP-15 session in Copenhagen. This commentary by a Berkeley physics professor and author of "Physics for Future Presidents" was bursting with enough ideas to stimulate a dozen blog postings, but its key insight was that even the massive cuts in US emissions proposed for mid-century would be of little or no consequence in curbing global emissions that are increasingly concentrated in the developing world. He suggests that the emissions of developing countries will count the most, and that these countries will only adopt emission cuts that provide clear economic benefits to them. In that context and under the current Kyoto-based framework, the strongest argument for imposing deep cuts on the US and EU is not the reduction of our own emissions--which would have a minimal direct impact on the expected increase in the earth's temperature--but the role of these cuts in creating a market for offsets generated by investments in emission-reduction projects in the uncapped developing world via the Clean Development Mechanism, or CDM. Unfortunately, this logic has already led to notable distortions of the intent of the CDM.

There has to be a better way. As Dr. Muller notes, "A dollar spent in China can reduce CO2 much more than a dollar spent in the US." Yet US voters won't countenance providing that dollar out of guilt, nor will they acquiesce to a scheme that makes China and other developing countries more competitive at their expense. Paradoxically, even domestic measures such as European feed-in tariffs and the proposed federal Renewable Electricity Standard embedded in the Waxman-Markey climate bill could create such an outcome, if Chinese and Indian green technology firms come to dominate developed country green energy markets. There are already indications of this happening in the German solar market.

Instead of the technology transfer we've been talking about for more than a decade, what may be needed is a new mechanism that actually creates markets in the developing world for clean energy hardware and know-how produced in the developed world, so that these projects create jobs and wealth in the US and EU, rather than threatening them. I'm not sure precisely what form such a deal might take, but at a minimum it should incorporate both open access to developing country markets and uniform legal protection for the physical and intellectual property of the developed-country companies making these investments.

The best thing that could come out of today's disruption at Copenhagen would be the cancellation of the big heads-of-state photo-ops planned for the final days of the conference and a determination to put the delegates back to work crafting a new agreement that creates the right recipe for focusing the lion's share of climate investments on the rapidly growing emissions of the third world, rather than on the shrinking emissions of the EU and the plateaued GHG output of the US. That would be something worthy of bringing the world's leaders together to sign.

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