Opinion

Wasting Time on Climate Negotiations

EDITOR’S NOTE:  My name is Frank Maisano, a Founding Partner at Bracewell Giuliani’s Policy Resolution Group.  I am a long time energy expert that has worked with many different industry clients for nearly 20 years.  I am excited that Morning Consult Energy is offering me an opportunity to start sharing my views with you on key energy/environmental policy and political issues.  I look forward to providing insight, tips, historical context and background on energy issues of the day.  I’m also happy to hear you views, opinions and critiques at frank.maisano@bgllp.com.  You can also follow me at @FrankTalk19

In New York next week, President Obama and some international leaders will be at the UN for meetings on climate change.  The event is the beginning of the next round of activity trying to advance a new international climate agreement, which will hit a fevered pitch in Paris a year from this November.

Not to be outdone by the world leaders’ high-profile meeting, activists are attempting to create additional momentum by staging large marches, protests and rallies in several cities to further advance the case for new, aggressive action addressing climate change.

So while we are seeing more advocate and government activity, finding international solutions that really address the political, economic  and environmental  challenges of climate change remain elusive.

Even in next week’s New York meetings, both India and China, key players in the global economy, will not be there.

As an observer of the UN negotiating process since before the Kyoto negotiation in 1997, it is clear we remain in a circle of inaction.  It is finally time to admit the UN process is broken and will never be fixed.  Already, we have wasted years looking for overly optimistic  solutions that will never be achieved.

From its origins to perhaps most significant moment — when negotiators decided on a Protocol in Kyoto in 1997 — to today, nations have done little more than talk, posture and argue rather than develop policies that can achieve meaningful, global emissions reductions.

The fact remains that emissions reductions for climate change were never about the environment for most countries.  While it always has been a top priority for activists, the process for most countries – both developed and developing – has always been about competitive economic advantage in the global marketplace.  This notion has undermined efforts to develop real, meaningful emissions gains.

Certainly, every year, international negotiators put on a good face, travel to exotic places like next year’s Paris meeting to try and address the challenges of climate change.   Unfortunately, with 194 countries debating every aspect of economic policy, future growth, sustainability and poverty, the process always breaks down.

Most often, we see it in terms of developing countries versus developed countries, but the more difficult breakdown often occurs within each group.  Developing countries are radically different featuring advanced economies with significant growth (and therefore significant emissions) like China, India, South Korea, and Mexico which always have much different needs, goals and objectives than poor or island economies that have no other leverage.  These countries are often the ones who will also be impacted first so they have some rightly-deserved sympathy, even from those that are as self-righteous as your typical UN bureaucrat. Yet, developed countries are no different, often looking to game the system for any economic advantage.

There have been some signs of possibilities.  Both Democrat and Republican U.S. Presidents have fundamentally changed the negotiating game over the years by making climate change a discussion point among the major emitters at international conferences like the G-20.  Not only are the right people at the table, but it places the climate issue in its proper context among other major issues like the global economy, technology partnership and international competitiveness.  This approach was cemented by President Obama in Copenhagen in 2010 when he cut a final deal there with China, India, South Africa, among others.  Never again can a deal emerge from the UN process, unless the major emitters decide it.

So get ready for the next sound and fury, handwringing and protesting starting next week in New York all the way through to Paris next year.  Even with President Obama’s recent controversial and legally dubious greenhouse gas proposals which will likely be costly to our economy, the bottom line is, it won’t matter to the global debate in the end.  Any UN deal won’t be worth the paper it is printed on because it will never really be followed.

It is a tough message for climate campaigners to hear.  Their 20 years of negotiating, pressure tactics and political stunts have produced nothing except bureaucratic infighting and lots of expense reports.  But now, with the right pieces in place with the major emitters, perhaps we can end the UN’s bureaucratic climate posturing and move on to something that has a modest chance for producing a successful, politically obtainable and meaningful result.

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