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27 September 2010

Measuring a changing climate by degrees

"International climate change negotiations are more like a marathon than a sprint," says Robert N. Stavins, Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

Measuring a changing climate by degreesTaking the long view, Stavins is more optimistic than many others that last year's climate summit in Copenhagen may have helped lay the foundation for future progress in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. He made his remarks at the MIT Energy Futures Conference held in the Principality of Monaco, 23–25 September 2010. TWAS participated in the events.

From a scientific perspective, the climate change challenge, Stavins notes, is not a "flow" environmental problem (as are most environmental problems), but a "stock" problem. That is, it's the accumulated stock of greenhouse gases that are linked to the damages.

From an economic perspective, according to Stavins, it's critical to devise a strategy that provides "a gradual ramp-up in greenhouse gas restrictions" to avoid the premature and costly obsolescence of existing power plants and automobiles. In addition, since advances in technology will be essential to addressing the global warming challenge, long-term price signals must be put in place to help shape investment decisions.

Moving ahead on all of these fronts, Stavins says, will require the "creation of durable international institutions." For Stavins, that means progress in international meetings, like the one in Copenhagen, should be measured not by some unrealistic notion of "immediate success" but by the steps taken "to help build a sound foundation for meaningful long-term action."

That doesn't mean, Stavins is quick to add, the meeting in Copenhagen was a rousing success. No consensus was reached among the delegates representing the 194 countries that participated in the meeting, leaving the status of current and future international climate-change agreements in doubt.

"However, last minute, direct negotiations among key national leaders from Brazil, China, India, South Africa and the United States," says Stavins, "avoided a complete collapse of the meeting."

The Copenhagen Accord, he maintains, which more than 140 countries have now agreed to, provides a significant political framework for "real cuts in greenhouse emissions by all major emitters." It also establishes a transparent way of determining whether a country is living up to its commitments. And it offers financial assistance to poor countries to help them pursue mitigation and adaptation activities.

To date, following the recommendation of the Copenhagen Accord, some 140 countries have submitted voluntary reports outlining their plans to achieve emission reductions. These countries are responsible for more than 80% of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Stavins readily concedes that if current trends continue, the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will exceed the 450 parts per million that most governments now accept as an important target. "What happened at Copenhagen – and what has occurred since – has not directly reduced the risks posed by climate change," he acknowledges.

"Yet, what has been true of trade negotiations is also true for climate change negotiations," he adds. Discussions will be long and arduous. And progress will often be measured more by the direction in which the dialogue is heading than by the ground that has been covered.

The next stop in the climate change marathon is Cancun, Mexico, in December. "Discussions in Cancun," Stavins says, "will probably be less cantankerous, but may not be any more productive than those that took place in Copenhagen."

Specifically, he hopes that conference attendees in Cancun are able to refine "the financing schemes devised in Copenhagen" and "develop better methods for comparing targets and actions." But he says that the most significant step forward at the meeting might well lie in its ability to establish "sensible expectations and effective plans" that take into account how complex and difficult the issue is.

The goal moving forward, Stavins maintains, should not be an immediate triumph over the challenges posed by climate change, but a long-term plan of action that reduces climate-change risks in a world grappling with an endless list of crucial challenges.

In that sense, climate change negotiations will seem more like a marathon than a sprint, and breakthroughs will more likely arouse relief from exhaustion than the exhilaration of a dash to the finish line.

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