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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


July-August 2007

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Editorial - Climate Change and Governance: Slow Going Below the Radar

This issue will be published soon after two important international economic summits: the meeting of the Group of Eight (G8, eight major industrialized nations representing a substantial portion of the global economy), which is including five “guest” countries (China, India, Brazil, Mexico, and South Africa) that have the top greenhouse gas emissions outside the G8; and the European Union (EU) Summit in late June. These high-level councils will seek to establish the basis of an effective and deliverable policy and implementation mechanisms for the post-Kyoto process that begins in 2012.

The G8 meetings revealed an appreciable movement toward a form of issue consensus but also deep and awkward political and economic divisions over delivery and timing. At the heart of the consensus is a recognition that action on climate change is a matter for global cooperation and that some relatively prompt action is necessary to begin a process of measurable and progressive cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change scientists should take pride in this vital outcome of the summit.

Where the going gets more difficult is in the machinery and method of implementation. The United States has reluctantly signed up for a “Kyoto 2” process under a United Nations (UN) mandate. This is an important diplomatic breakthrough. It is not just the White House: Congress is also uneasy about Kyoto and the UN negotiating frameworks. So, there is still hard diplomatic pounding ahead: The critical issues of targets and emission limits are still unresolved. What is evident is that the EU likes to write targets and mechanisms into protocol but has yet to deliver real cuts. The United States is more circumspect about specifics, as there is always the possibility of opportunistic litigation in the case of non-compliance. In any case, the United States is not politically ready for specific targets. 
Meanwhile, below the radar of these negotiations, it is vital that functional initiatives on various forms of greenhouse gas reduction prove timely and effective. Two studies reported in this issue—“Necessary but Insufficient: State Renewable Portfolio Standards and Climate Change Policies” by Benjamin K. Sovacool and Jack N. Barkenbus, about states having to regulate fossil fuel emitting energy technologies because the federal government does not or will not intervene; and, “Examining New U.S. Fuel Economy Standards” by Steven Plotkin, on more efficient fuel consumption in automobiles—reveal the frustration that is abundant in such important efforts.

What we learn here is that there is a willingness to move ahead with innovative schemes and technologies at the level of the state and, in principle, at the level of the corporation. But actual progress is painfully slow and quite modest in outcome. Sovacool and Barkenbus show that states face much friction in getting renewable obligations to take hold. Lobbying and sheer commercial profitability still control the agenda. Plotkin’s analysis suggests that where any fuel efficiency deal involves much new regulatory legality, monitoring of compliance, and sustained commercial commitment over at least 20 years, business is bound to be nervous over the huge financial commitments involved in reaching the kinds of efficiencies expected of serious reductions in carbon dioxide emissions.

Designing meaningful activities for greenhouse gas removal below the level of the national radar, in the absence of clear government regulatory support, unambiguous economic incentives, and business buy-in is proving to be sticky going. Yet the “top tables” at the international summits are proclaiming urgency and seeking sustained commitments from the corporate sector.

Sadly, we cannot afford to wait any longer for the radar screens of each of these climate change actors to intersect. Effective diplomacy needs the bedfellow of reliable regulatory frameworks to enable businesses to plan for the long view with confidence. The politics of the long view suddenly become very pressing.

—Timothy O’Riordan

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