At its core, the task faced by the negotiators meeting at the U.N. Conference on climate change this week is to figure out how to make clean technologies cost-competitive with fossil fuels. Held in Poznan, Poland, the talks aim to draft a replacement for the Kyoto Protocol, the emissions reduction scheme that is set to expire in 2012. As the international group of delegates debates how to balance a grim picture of poverty and hunger caused by a warming world with realistic global action plans, the question of who will pay and how is inevitably at the forefront.
The hallmark of the Kyoto Protocol is its broadness and lack of specificity. The Protocol set targets and deadlines, with each participating country able to embrace its own methods for reaching those targets. But Kyoto's outcome has been ambiguous. Critics say that countries have been taking credit for developments that would have happened anyway, even without the Protocol — rendering the agreement essentially meaningless. More importantly, they say, the agreement doesn't cover enough territory — literally. With the United States refusing to sign and rapidly growing economies not required to reduce their emissions, Kyoto never stood a chance as a long-term plan to tackle climate change.
A Harvard report released last week offers some lessons for the post-Kyoto world. It recommends, among other things:
• setting global standards for certain industries, with trade restrictions to punish violators
• drafting global agreements to foster research into technologies that will make it easier and cheaper to mitigate inevitable warming
• a broad set of coordinated, but national, carbon taxes that encompass the largest emitters in the world, and
• finding ways to accomplish the above so that no country is asked to spend more than 1 percent of its gross domestic product on them.
A new global climate policy drafted along those lines would add more specificity and harmony to the efforts of participating countries. Avoiding multi-year bureaucratic entanglements in drafting those agreements will be key. The goal is to transfer technological expertise from countries that are already actively combating climate change through renewable energy technologies and energy efficiency measures to countries that are not.
The world has changed dramatically since the initial days of Kyoto. China has surpassed the United States as the world's largest emitter, and while we will have a new president next month, there are few signs that China's track record will improve. To be sure, the old titans of trouble are still responsible for large chunks of carbon-dioxide emissions. But a truly long-term, global agreement to stabilize climate change requires the new economies — China, India, Brazil and several others — to factor environmental solidarity into economic growth.
Story by Sandra Upson. This article originally appeared in Plenty in December 2008.