Overcoming the Copenhagen Failure

Underlying the failure of the climate change summit in Copenhagen last month is the failure of the idea that carbon-emission rights can be allocated fairly. Perhaps it is time to try another approach: a commitment by each country to raise the price of emissions (whether through a carbon tax or emissions caps) to an agreed level, say, $80 per ton.

NEW YORK – Pretty speeches can take you only so far. A month after the Copenhagen climate conference, it is clear that the world’s leaders were unable to translate rhetoric about global warming into action.

It was, of course, nice that world leaders could agree that it would be bad to risk the devastation that could be wrought by an increase in global temperatures of more than two degrees Celsius. At least they paid some attention to the mounting scientific evidence.     And certain principles set out in the 1992 Rio Framework Convention, including “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities,” were affirmed. So, too, was the developed countries’ agreement to “provide adequate, predictable and sustainable financial resources, technology, and capacity-building….” to developing countries.

The failure of Copenhagen was not the absence of a legally binding agreement. The real failure was that there was no agreement about how to achieve the lofty goal of saving the planet, no agreement about reductions in carbon emissions, no agreement on how to share the burden, and no agreement on help for developing countries. Even the commitment of the accord to provide amounts approaching $30 billion for the period 2010-2012 for adaptation and mitigation appears paltry next to the hundreds of billions of dollars that have been doled out to the banks in the bailouts of 2008-2009. If we can afford that much to save banks, we can afford something more to save the planet.

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