“The US still needs to lead”

Guest post by Paul Joy, Beijing-based renewable energy consultant

I believe that Copenhagen will fail. We have passed the critical CO2 threshold of 350 parts per million, and are now accelerating toward 400ppm. The opportunity to stabilise global temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius is rapidly coming to a close. We will not be able to integrate global carbon markets, boost investments in energy efficiency, or move to renewable energy fast enough to reverse climate change. A Prisoner’s Dilemma now exists on this issue, where no one country has the necessary leverage to get others to act. And while the global public does understand there is a problem, the perceived lack of short-term benefits is limiting our ability to scale policy and investment to achieve a real breakthrough.

How does this relate to what is going on in Copenhagen? The ongoing climate conference may produce an agreement on a variety of different targets, and also on money, but no international regulatory body will be established to enforce these agreements. India and China have already indicated that such a body would be a gross infringement of national sovereignty. Instead, because no country has any substantive advantage over any other, protectionist and piecemeal efforts by developed countries will become increasingly utilized as these countries seek to stop carbon leakage and force larger developing countries into action. The EU’s carbon tax for incoming jet-liners and provisions within the American climate change bill to punish trading partners that don’t have similar carbon regulations are only the beginning of more intrusive policies that could further divide the planet, given the current power vacuum on this issue.

That said, what should the lesson of Copenhagen be? That further cooperation on climate change will always be impossible? That the world will be perpetually divided between developed and developing countries? I certainly hope not.

The key take-away lesson is that the best chance for a future agreement depends on the ability of the United States to take the lead on this issue. The US state department should continue and expand its public outreach strategy. Public officials, businesses, and scientists need to learn how to better educate the public, push for continued climate and environmental-related reforms, and learn how to easily refute climate-change-denier arguments for continued inaction. Furthermore, the US congress needs to act unilaterally to pass comprehensive carbon emissions regulations, as well as create incentives for business to begin investment in these game-changing industries, including the establishment of a mitigation roadmap. Putting the United States on a strong economic footing through these investments will allow US negotiators to leverage US economic strength to get other countries to do what is in all of our best interests. These actions may not make a difference one year from now at the UNFCCC conference in Mexico City, but it will push the public to be more responsive in the next five or 10 years, as well as give the US government the leverage it needs to fulfill its role as the indispensable nation. After all, climate change isn’t a problem that is going away.