So can anyone actually do something about global warming?

The new issue of Foreign Affairs is hot off the presses. Its cover package includes three articles about global warming that are well worth reading. The focus here is entirely on how to solve the problem. This is a discussion of the politics, not the scientific debate behind it.

First up is Michael Levi, who provides a very sobering look at how hard it will be for this year’s Copenhagen conference (the successor to Kyoto) to produce meaningful results.

Hopes are higher than ever for a breakthrough climate deal. For the past eight years, many argued that developing nations reluctant to commit to a new global climate-change deal — particularly China and India — were simply hiding behind the United States, whose enthusiastic engagement was all that was needed for a breakthrough. Now the long-awaited shift in U.S. policy has arrived.

But George Bush’s America wasn’t the only problem:

The odds of signing a comprehensive treaty in December are vanishingly small. And even reaching such a deal the following year would be an extraordinary challenge…

Many U.S. lawmakers want absolute near-term emissions caps from China and India, but those countries will not sign up for anything of the sort for at least another decade. And before they consider a deal of any kind, Chinese and Indian negotiators are demanding that developed countries commit to cutting their greenhouse gas emissions by over 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2020, but none of the world’s wealthiest countries will even come close to meeting this goal.

And what if, miraculously, Copenhagen does result in a breakthrough treaty?

Even a blockbuster deal in which every country signed up to binding emissions caps would come nowhere close to guaranteeing success, since the world has few useful options for enforcing commitments to slash emissions short of punitive trade sanctions or similarly unpalatable penalties.

Levi returns often to the challenge of negotiating a deal that can satisfy both the West as well as India and China.

Americans accustomed to thinking about climate diplomacy within the framework of the Kyoto Protocol may assume that the obvious next step is to translate reduction goals into emissions caps, put them in a treaty, and establish a system for global carbon trading. But this would be problematic for three reasons.

First, negotiators from developing countries would insist on much less stringent caps than whatever they thought they could meet…

Second, even if a developing country met its agreed emissions cap, other nations would, in the near term, have little way of verifying this, since most developing countries, including China and India, lack the capacity to robustly monitor their entire economies’ emissions…

And finally, even if the problems of excessively high caps and poor verification could be solved, simple caps would have little value on their own. Canada is a case in point. Ottawa will soon exceed its Kyoto limit by about 30 percent, yet it will face no penalty for doing so because the Kyoto parties never agreed on any meaningful punishments. The United States and others have essentially no way to hold countries such as China and India to emissions caps short of using punitive trade sanctions or other blunt instruments that would make a mess of broader U.S. foreign policy. Obsessing narrowly in Copenhagen over legally binding near-term caps for developing countries is therefore a waste of time.

Seriously? The Canadians? Are there no good countries left in global politics?

Anyhow, Levi argues that the best hope for Copenhagen is a partnership that helps China and other developing countries clean up their act at home:

Shifting China onto a cleaner path will require Beijing to identify specific ways in which it can make deep emissions-intensity cuts. That could include better enforcement of building codes, mandating the use of efficient technology in factories, new subsidies for renewable energy, or a provisional commitment to use carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology on new coal plants by 2020. The United States and other wealthy countries should then offer to help China in whatever ways they usefully can. When it comes to building codes, Washington could help develop Beijing’s monitoring and enforcement capacity…wind power could be expanded by encouraging China to improve its protection of intellectual property, which would attract investment from international firms; and to help slash emissions from coal, the U.S. and Chinese governments could fund private demonstrations of CCS technology and share the resulting intellectual property.

Those are certainly interesting ideas, but one has to wonder about the political plausibility of an approach that rests on China welcoming foreign involvement in its domestic affairs and becoming a leader in the defense of intellectual property rights.

It will certainly be interesting to see whether the US government approaches Copenhagen in the same modest spirit as Mr. Levi.

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