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In global climate change fight, what can we learn from Kyoto?

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James Stafford: What SHOULD the strategy be for building momentum for countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions?

David Shorr: Rather than looking back at Kyoto, maybe the 2009 Copenhagen climate change conference should serve as the key reference point. That meeting was significant in terms of broadly accepted principles as well as Chinese and Indian willingness to boost their commitment -- and the connection between the two. We’ve seen that Beijing and New Delhi are more amenable to a system of peer review for GHG reductions than a fully elaborated and codified treaty. And here in our own country, senate Republicans’ waning interest in the issue (or outright hostility) makes US ratification of any treaty uncertain at best. 

Not that shifting to a looser “pledge and review” framework would settle all the difficult issues. China and India have also put up resistance when it comes to measurement, reporting, and verification of GHG levels.  Yet these kinds of steps to monitor progress are no less important for an informal climate regime. The whole point of a peer review system would be to get on with the work of cutting emissions instead of wrangling over every word of a draft treaty.

The United States and other industrial powers have to hold up their side of the bargain, too. Because of the congressional roadblocks, the US action on climate has focused in a couple key sectors: transportation and power generation. After saving the auto industry during the financial crisis, President Obama reached an agreement with the car manufacturers that will nearly double the fuel economy of our overall fleet. The plentiful supply and low prices of natural gas enabled the administration to work with power suppliers on tightened new-source emission standards -- though the process of drafting the associated regulations has faced the same sort of resistance as Dodd-Frank financial regulatory reform. The other big issue is climate change financing.  In Copenhagen the developed countries promised to steadily ramp up tens of billions (USD) in annual public and private financing to dampen the causes and effects of climate change in the developing world. As developing nations see it, this is a key test of developed countries’ good faith.

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