Op-Ed: Getting It Right: Climate Change Problem Demands Thoughtful Solutions

OPINION EDITORIAL
"Getting It Right: Climate Change Problem Demands Thoughtful Solutions"

By Eileen Claussen, Executive Director for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change

Appeared in the Washington Post

November 14, 2000

Many of the government officials gathering this month for the climate change negotiations in The Hague are hoping to put the finishing touches on rules to implement the Kyoto Protocol. But getting those rules right is more important than getting them all completed.

Still unresolved on the eve of the meeting are a range of very complicated political and technical issues that will play a decisive role in determining whether we achieve our goal of stabilizing the earth's climate system. It is not a stretch to say that how we decide these issues will determine how we are judged by future generations.

Decision-makers in The Hague should remember that the Kyoto Protocol was designed as both a first step in reducing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases and as a framework for long-term, cost-effective action. In other words, this is a treaty that will have to stand the test of time. Short-term political considerations-including the desire to resolve all remaining issues this year-should therefore take a backseat to the goal of creating a global system that is transparent, fair, environmentally effective, economically efficient, and as simple as possible.

The Remaining Issues

Four key sets of issues remain in play as the negotiators come together:

  1. The Kyoto Mechanisms. The Kyoto mechanisms were designed to allow countries to pursue the most cost-effective means of reducing their emissions-for example, by engaging in international emissions trading. But there are provisions being negotiated that would make the Kyoto mechanisms totally inoperable, and others that would seriously limit their use. If the negotiators are careless in defining the rules, or determined to constrain when and how the mechanisms can be used, this will simply increase the costs of complying with the Protocol. And the result might be a higher level of noncompliance, an outcome that no one should want.
  2. Carbon Sequestration. The question here is whether and how countries should receive credit toward their emissions reduction targets for using agricultural lands and forests to store carbon. A related question is whether credit should be given for investments in sequestration projects in developing countries. The important role of soil and forest sequestration in stabilizing the global climate system cannot be denied. However, we have not yet defined what types of sequestration activities ought to count-or even how to count them.
  3. Compliance. Yet another unanswered question is whether the Kyoto Protocol will include binding consequences for noncompliance. In other words, how will we penalize those countries that miss their targets? This is a crucial issue to the Protocol's success. Only by establishing and enforcing significant noncompliance penalties can we create a fair and efficient global system, and one that yields results.
  4. Assistance to Developing Countries. Developing countries properly argue that the industrialized world is not doing enough to implement provisions of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. In that precursor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol, the United States and other nations pledged to support developing countries in their efforts to reduce emissions through capacity building, technology transfer, and funding for "adaptation" initiatives. Decision makers in The Hague will have to respond seriously to these concerns at the same time as they are working on the more fractious issues of the Kyoto framework.

Looking Ahead

As if resolving these immediate questions were not enough of a challenge, everyone concerned with this issue must also give serious thought to the future. After all, the 2008-2012 deadline for achieving the first round of emissions reductions under the Kyoto Protocol is fast approaching. And, even if these initial targets are met (an unlikely prospect), they represent only a first step toward the sustained and significant reductions in emissions that will be necessary to reduce the threat of climate change throughout the 21st century.

A crucial issue for the future, then, is to think about what kind of targets we will have to establish in the years after 2012. At the same time, we need to think about how to involve developing countries in these future global efforts in a more active way. Developing countries are struggling to lift their people to a higher standard of living, and doing so will mean absolute increases in energy use and emissions.

We will accomplish very little, if anything, by requiring developing countries to achieve short-term emissions reductions. The better approach is to craft an equitable and effective framework for future targets for all countries, bearing in mind that we face a common challenge: maximizing the environmental benefits we are able to achieve while minimizing the costs of reducing and limiting our emissions.

Meeting the challenge of global climate change calls for no less than a second industrial revolution. We need to promote new technologies and new investments that will put the entire world on a path to clean economic development. And, in creating the global legal framework to make this happen, we need to make absolutely certain that we get it right.