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Beyond Copenhagen: 8 Ways to Revitalize the Climate Talks

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More than a month after the conclusion of COP15 — the UN climate talks in Copenhagen — negotiators and observers alike are still grappling with what to make of the Copenhagen Accord that resulted from the summit. Agreements under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change require consensus in order to take effect. Because a handful of countries refused to give their assent to the accord, it was not formally adopted and now hovers in a legal purgatory outside of the two official negotiating tracks under the Convention.

Hoping to shed some light on where to go next, the Climate and Energy Policy Institute at UC Berkeley last week convened a panel of campus experts to discuss “Beyond Copenhagen: Forging a Global Response to Climate Change.” The conference convened just a few days before the January 31 deadline for countries to formally indicate support for the Copenhagen Accord. UN climate chief Yvo De Boer said last month that the deadline was “soft,” and as of Tuesday 137 countries had not submitted pledges to reduce their emissions. Here are eight recommendations from Berkeley faculty to revitalize the international climate change talks:

Mobilize Academia:

Panelists repeatedly insisted (not surprisingly for the Berkeley campus) that a problem as complex as climate change cannot be tackled if political leaders don’t tap the know-how available at their nations’ universities. Law school Dean Christopher Edley said that Berkeley must re-invent itself to be capable of transmitting research to decision-makers, not passively waiting to be asked for advice. Fortunately, Edley said, the interdisciplinary nature of research under way at Berkeley and other public universities is just what the climate change problem needs.

Rebuild Trust:

The U.S. delegation at COP15 was typified by brilliant and earnest technocrats with deep knowledge, said Robert Collier, a visiting scholar at the Goldman School for Public Policy. But the group views the rest of the world through the rubric of power politics, and many developing countries hold a deep-seeded distrust of U.S. intentions. Collier said that if the U.S. can convince developing countries it understands their views and concerns, it would go a long way toward rebuilding trust.

Help Mexico Prepare for COP16:

Even defenders of COP15 have described the summit as chaotic and disorganized. Blas Pérez Henríquez, the director of Berkeley’s Center for Environmental Public Policy and a past Mexican government delegate to UN climate talks, said that the Mexican government, slated to host COP16 later this year, has started dispatching diplomats around the globe to consult with other nations on ways to improve the process. Despite Mexico’s close economic and regional ties to the U.S., Henríquez said that Mexico – a member of OPEC and the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) but not one of the industrialized countries classified as “Annex I” under the Kyoto Protocol – is well-positioned to host the next round of the climate change talks.

Focus the Debate Around Low-Carbon Growth:

Political scientist John Zysman argues that the climate change fight has been misframed. Campaigners and negotiators focus on cutting emissions, which connotes losses and costs and sets up a winners-vs.-losers argument between developed and developing countries. They’d be better served, he said, focusing on the benefits that would accrue to those who make the transition to low-carbon growth first.

Slow the Momentum of Coal and Oil in China:

After noting a shift in focus by the Chinese Communist Party — from ideology to economic growth –economist David Roland-Holst unleashed a torrent of statistics illustrating the magnitude of China’s growth push. Between now and 2020, he said, more new electricity generating capacity will be brought online in China than the entire installed capacity of the EU-25 – and 87 percent is projected to come from coal. And with increased wealth, comes cars. In the U.S., there are 800 cars for every 1,000 citizens; in China, it is just 18 cars per 1,000 citizens. As recently as 1995, China was a net oil exporter; now it is the world’s largest oil importer. China’s scale makes efficiency especially important. If all the refrigerators and air conditioners in China met Energy Star standards, Roland-Holst said, the resulting energy savings would nearly match the electricity output of the Three Gorges Dam.

Resolve the St. Augustine Problem:

Economist Michael Hanemann argued that political leaders must get over the St. Augustine problem. Famously libidinous as a young man, Augustine prayed that God would “grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” Similarly, business and political leaders have used the recession as cover to justify delay in taking action on climate change, Hanemann said. Most stakeholders recognize the problem and know that sooner or later they will be asked to make changes to reduce emissions but, please, just not yet.

Set a Carbon Floor and Ceiling:

For economist Larry Karp, a key missing element in the climate change fight is certainty. Companies need to know that mitigation policies enacted now will be in place in the future. Limits on greenhouse gas emissions are required for there to be a price on carbon; new technologies won’t deploy fast enough without that price signal. His solution: a price ceiling and price floor for carbon. The price ceiling would increase with the number of countries that sign onto a global climate deal, giving countries a clear incentive to join; the floor would aid companies’ decisions on whether to invest in green technology.

Don’t Let AB 32 Get Derailed:

Closer to home, Robert Collier warned of threats to California’s landmark global warming law, AB 32. Two Republican candidates for governor, former eBay chief Meg Whitman and state insurance commissioner Steve Poizner, have pledged to do all they can to suspend the law. Poizner has endorsed a prospective November ballot measure, the California Jobs Initiative, which would suspend the law until unemployment in California returns to the level that existed when AB 32 passed. Should AB 32 fall, Collier said, it would trigger a domino effect impacting other sub-national governments, Congress, and even the international climate talks.

Video of the “Beyond Copenhagen: Forging a Global Response to Climate Change”:

Related GigaOM Pro report (sub. req’d):Copenhagen Boosts Tech Companies’ Green Plans

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