Stakeholders should negotiate new treaty

What may have been more ironic than the fact that these global warming negotiations occurred amidst frigid European winter weather was that, despite the size, these talks essentially boiled down to two men: President Barack Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.

With one day to go, the talks were in jeopardy of producing nothing. World leaders, however, were able to walk away from these talks with a face-saving political “accord” that was essentially the product of a day of meetings between China, the United States and a handful of other nations.

It makes sense that these talks ended with China and the U.S. hammering out a deal, because together, these nations produce more than 40 percent of global emissions. What doesn’t make sense is that the talks didn’t just start this way in the first place.

To most observers, this accord was a failure, primarily because it didn’t produce a legally binding agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions. I am among the observers who criticized this agreement, mostly because it included an outrageous $100 billion-a-year commitment of aid from developed to developing countries by 2020.

But setting aside concerns about the end product, the process of reaching this flawed accord revealed a path toward meaningful climate change discussions: Negotiations should be between fewer stakeholders and must move past the fallacy that capping emissions is the best way to create a low-carbon economy. The legacy of the Copenhagen talks may not be the toothless accord it produced, but the fact that the accord was essentially reached outside the U.N. system.

At the outset of the conference, talks were stalled when the tiny island nation of Tuvalu proposed language that would have required deep emission cuts from all emitters. Many nations — especially China — stood in firm opposition to this proposal and the talks broke down.

Tuvalu’s entire population could not fill the Bella Center, and the tiny country produces a scant trace of the greenhouse gas emissions under negotiation. Tuvalu has neither the carrot nor the stick to get the U.S., China and other major emitters to undertake the dramatic belt-tightening that its proposed cap on emissions demanded, yet under the U.N. system, it was still able to slow any progress toward a meaningful agreement.

A small handful of countries are responsible for virtually all global emissions. It therefore makes little sense to wrestle for consensus between 193 countries.

To get around the unwieldy U.N., former President George W. Bush established a forum of 17 “major economies” to help find common ground on climate issues. President Obama found this forum useful and kept it intact going into Copenhagen.

After recent greenhouse gas reduction proposals from China and India, it’s time for a new approach to international climate negotiations that focuses on major emitters.

The Copenhagen accord required all nations to submit targets or actions for reductions, but China, India and other developing countries are sticking with their pre-Copenhagen proposals that offer nothing more than business-as-usual growth. Astonishingly, India’s “reduction” target is a 174 percent jump in emissions while China promises to “limit” itself to a mere 89 percent growth in emissions.

If developed countries are required to make real and expensive cuts while China and India agree to grow unabated, it will be environmentally ineffective and also place developed countries at a competitive disadvantage. These proposals are an example of the time-wasting non-starters that complicate and slow any real progress on climate negotiations.

Emission cuts are difficult because they are costly. They require substituting cheap energy sources with expensive ones that result in price increases that hit nearly every sector of the economy. What makes emission cuts pricey is that — despite the hype — so-called “green” energy technologies aren’t ready to meet the cuts demanded by nations like Tuvalu. On this, China and the U.S. agree.

Negotiations in which each country is forced to pledge expensive cuts are destined to fail. It’s in each nation’s interest for other nations to make strong pledges. The resulting bickering is hardly a surprise. With fewer stakeholders at the table, negotiators could find common ground by emphasizing technology and innovations that can make growing economies more efficient, not more expensive.

The ultimate question is, How we can foster technologies that enable a low-carbon economy? Surely there is room for discussion of mutually beneficial answers to that question once we move past the bickering where 193 countries demand that all the other countries adopt economically disastrous emissions caps.

A climate change accord is in reach if major emitting countries break with the lumbering U.N. and explore agreements that shift the focus from mandatory emission cuts to innovative methods to foster new technologies.

Sensenbrenner is the ranking Republican on the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.