The Day After Copenhagen

With movies like The Day After Tomorrow depicting the apocalyptic consequences of global warming, the issue of climate change has since transformed from being simply a “Hollywood problem” to a reality we must confront. Global warming deniers have long since been discredited, and an urgency to address climate change has heightened in policy spheres and also in the public imagination. It is the unfortunate fact that climate change is not an issue that can be simply tackled by one well-meaning individual or even one nation. Maintaining the sustainability of our planet is a collective responsibility, because it affects us all. An effective and lasting solution—or, at the very least, a hope of one—can only be reached through global consensus. The Copenhagen climate summit that will take place early this month provides an opportunity for nations to collectively define the direction of climate change policy over the next few decades.

International efforts to curb global warming have been attempted before but have been largely unsuccessful. The Kyoto Protocol, formed in 1997, required all developed countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emission levels by 5.2% from 1990 levels. The protocol, however, was hampered by the fact that climate change had still not been accepted globally and developing countries such as India and China, who were projected to have some of the highest carbon emission levels in the years after the treaty was signed, had no obligations to cut carbon emissions. This privilege was justified, according to the protocol’s signers, because carbon emission levels in India and China were insignificant in 1990, and, to a large extent, measures to limit India and China’s emissions were viewed as a way of obstructing their growth. Though at the time the Clinton Administration symbolically signed the treaty, the U.S. Congress failed to ratify it with many congressmen arguing against the existence of global warming. The lack of regulations on India and China’s emissions was also a major factor in the United States’ refusal to back the treaty. The reasoning was simple: the United States would not be able to maintain its status as the forerunner in economic development if it had to cut back its growth to curb emissions.

On the global scale, tackling climate change has taken on a vicious tenor—being couched crudely as a clash between “East and West.” Developed countries, such as the United States, argue that international treaties be applied to all countries equally, given that some developing nations have now achieved economic prosperity. To still developing nations, this treatment seems like a veiled attempt by the West to prevent their continual ascent as it very conspicuously favors developed countries. By the same token, developed nations argue that it would be equally inequitable for them to inhibit their growth while countries like India and China would be unchecked.

Just because developed countries such as the United States industrialized in an irresponsible fashion does not mean that India or China should follow the same path or that the rest of the world should stand idly by as they attempt to do so. History ought not be repeated. The time has come for developing countries to pave a new path of industrialization by taking a different approach—an approach that would consist of renewable energy alternatives that would create jobs and build an economy that is not dependent on fossil fuels.

That is not to say that this path will be an easy one. One of the leading economists working on analyzing the economic impacts of climate change policy, Lord Nicholas Stern, estimates that the costs for developing countries to adapt environmentally responsible practices will be between $75 and $100 billion per year over the next 40 years. For less wealthy developing countries, these costs are too overwhelming to even be considered. These countries can still participate in combating climate change even if doing so is extremely costly, insists Professor Michael Gerrard, Director of the Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University and one of the most prolific writers on environmental law in the United States. “If the less developed countries can be paid to greatly reduce deforestation and improve the efficiency of their use of energy, that becomes a way to put through a trading mechanism to transfer significant funds and make the whole enterprise work economically.” It is incumbent upon wealthier, developed nations to aid developing nations. Further, developing countries, such as India and China, which actually have the financial means of making such a transition, ought to pursue it. With all that said, developing countries will eventually have to confront the very problems developed countries are currently faced with as a result of their unchecked industrialization. It would behoove them to adopt a different mindset.

Copenhagen, nicknamed by some as the “Kyoto redemption,” is seen by many as the final chance to begin the talks to draft an international plan to curb global warming before the phenomenon reaches a point of irreversibility. Gerrard describes Copenhagen as the “occasion for a comprehensive agreement among the nations of the world including the U.S. on what to do about climate change.” While an increasing number of doubts have cropped up in the days and weeks leading up to the summit, policymakers and researchers are still crossing their fingers that discussions will not be fruitless.


If we are to speculate as to what kind of international climate agreement could be made at Copenhagen that would avoid the problems of the Kyoto Protocol, it seems that one viable option would be for developed countries to cut carbon emissions based on a per capita standard as opposed to meeting benchmarks or total emissions standards. In other words, instead of establishing an arbitrary cap on carbon emissions, countries should be required to decrease their carbon footprint per person. Leading scientists have established that 350 parts per million (ppm) is the safe level for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. An international percentage decrease in per capita carbon emissions that meets 350 ppm by 2050 would be ideal. There are many advantages to this approach—the most important being that it forces all developed countries to play some part in cutting carbon emissions. It would also be more politically feasible to get developed countries such as the United States to ratify such an agreement, since part of the reason the U.S. refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol was because not all countries were being held to the same accountability standards. Gerrard, however, voices his concern with this proposal, reasoning that “a uniform percentage reduction essentially legitimizes today’s emission levels. There are some places in the world that are extremely inefficient in their energy use and, arguably, they should have greater reduction obligations than a country that is currently efficient.” Thus, decreases per capita would place an unfair burden on some nations, argues Gerrard.

On the question of how to involve developing countries such as India or China in the fight against climate change, Gerrard advocates for “greenhouse gas intensity goals” to keep developing countries, who would have a harder time meeting such decreases, involved. His policy proposal is based on the idea that, “although economic development can proceed, the amount of greenhouse gas emissions per unit of economic activity has to decline; in other words, the efficiency of energy use has to improve.” So, instead of countries having to reduce emissions, categorically, they would be required to reduce emissions as the result of increased efficiency—a system that would encourage rather than discourage growth. He goes on to add that, “there have already been some signals from both China and India that a goal of that sort might be palatable given that it explicitly allows continued economic growth.” In this way, there is, perhaps, a space for compromise between the “East and West.”


Geopolitically, the European Union has established itself as the leader running up to Copenhagen by coming together at the end of October and pledging that it will aim to cut carbon emissions 80-95 percent compared to 1990 levels by 2050. This pledge follows the E.U.’s unilateral commitment earlier in the year to reduce all carbon emissions 20 percent by 2020 regardless of the actions and policies of other nations. The current debate in the E.U. revolves around how these ambitious plans can be met in a financially feasible manner. The E.U., however, has long since proven its strong commitment to combating climate change. More surprising has been encouraging signs of cooperation from countries like India and China that were once an impediment to the Kyoto Protocol’s success. Leaders from both countries met at the end of October to sign a pact to ensure coordination of their climate negotiations signaling that they both seek to be active participants in Copenhagen.

With cooperation coming from all ends, the international community has been increasingly curious to see what role the U.S. intends on playing at Copenhagen. Though President Barack Obama made climate change one of the centerpieces of his presidential campaign, the financial crisis and the healthcare debate have sidelined efforts on the environmental front. Although many analysts contend that more has been done to deal with climate change since Obama took office in the last year than in the last eight years of Bush’s tenure, there have still been no signs of established leadership from the U.S. Congress in the lead-up to Copenhagen. The international community has kept a watchful eye, expecting the U.S. to pass domestic legislation to prove its commitment. There is still a long ways to go, however. The House passed its version of a climate bill last June requiring 17 percent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 while the Senate, driven by Senators Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.), has been attempting to draft a bill that would require 20 percent reductions in greenhouse gases by 2020.

The most upsetting news came in early October when Obama’s top climate and energy official, Carol Browner, announced that it was virtually impossible for Congress to pass any type of climate change legislation before the Copenhagen talks. Browner made it clear that the best scenario would be for the Senate to complete its hearings and at least produce a draft of a bill before Copenhagen. This announcement was followed by Obama himself acknowledging that it is very unlikely that an international agreement would be made at Copenhagen. Instead, Obama has stated Copenhagen will be a venue to continue the discussions that have been ongoing for the last year. Gerrard express his disappointment, saying, “the prospects for a binding comprehensive agreement in Copenhagen have dimmed partly because the U.S. Congress does not seem poised to take final action before then.” What is relieving, however, is that on the domestic front, there are signs of bipartisanship to combat climate change that were once non-existent. Senators Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Kerry recently co-authored an op-ed in the New York Times urging the Obama administration and Congress to give more importance to the issue of climate change. Without a doubt, the environment remains one of Congress’ main concerns.


As noted above, Congress has not left environmental issues completely untouched. Last summer was an exciting time for climate change experts and environmental activists when the House narrowly passed its version of a climate bill, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009. The major elements of the House bill, more commonly known as the Waxman-Markey bill, include a cap-and-trade program, carbon capture and storage (CCS) incentives, a requirement for 20 percent of electricity to come from renewable fuels by 2025, and higher energy and fuel efficiency standards for buildings and cars. The ultimate objective of the bill is to reduce greenhouse gases by 83 percent by 2050. Similar to concerns on the global scale, there is much doubt as to the effectiveness and political feasibility of the bill’s implementation.

The cap-and-trade program would essentially set a limit on the carbon emissions of companies or industries and would force them to buy credits from less-polluting companies if they exceed their emissions limit. A report published by the Sightline Institute from July 2009 highlights three core principles that any cap-and-trade program should embody: effectiveness, efficiency, and fairness. An effective program should cut greenhouse gases in a manner that is gradual but rapid enough to meet the needed targets. This program should also be efficient by being simple, flexible, and market-oriented. Lastly, the economic burden ought to be equitably distributed and focus on not just benefitting a wealthy few.

This idea sounds compelling at first but cap-and-trade has its own host of problems, many of which have surfaced in areas that have already implemented such a policy. The system was first implemented in Europe in response to the Kyoto Protocol but turned out largely unsuccessful as too many credits were distributed initially, rendering the value of carbon credits negligibly low. On the east coast of the U.S., utility companies have complained that the system set up by the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) utterly cripples them because of pre-existing long-term contracts. Their complaints have prompted New York Governor David Paterson to issue exemptions. This result had the effect of undermining the entire system. Once a few companies had been given exemptions, other companies scrambled for the same concessions. Gerrard, however, defends RGGI and offers some optimism in regards to cap-and-trade. “I think RGGI has worked pretty well within its terms. We also have the successful precedence in cap-and-trade in the context of acid rain reduction and certain other air pollutants. So I think there is reason to be hopeful that cap-and-trade will yield positive effect.”

Looking into the future, it will be difficult to garner enough political support for an equitable cap-and-trade system that actually limits greenhouse gas emissions because states that heavily rely on the coal industry will simply not agree to such a plan. Moreover, 50 percent of the United States’ energy needs are currently being met by coal power plants. For that reason, the Waxman-Markey bill accounts for such problems with its carbon capture and storage (CCS) provisions. CCS involves a system of capturing carbon dioxide from the air through a process called engineered chemical sinkage and sequestering it. Professor Klaus Lackner, chair of the Earth & Environmental Engineering Department at Columbia and one of the most reputed environmental scientists in the world for pioneering CCS technology, explains that the goal of CCS “is to literally collect all of your CO2 and put it somewhere where you can safely and permanently store it.”

The concern with CCS is that it would discourage the innovation of renewable resources and support the increase in the use of fossil fuels. Further, provisions outlined in the bill would give the coal industry record subsidies as the United Mine Workers of America estimates allowances to be worth over $180 billion between now and 2050. But Lackner notes the coal industry “wouldn’t see it as a boon. They would see it seriously as an attack. Because basically they are told they cannot do business as usual but that they have to come up with something brand new.” Seen in this light, CCS could offer more than one purpose: in the short term, it could perhaps help cut our carbon emissions but high costs may actually encourage the use of more renewable technologies in the long run.

The elephant in the room, however, is that, according to reports released by Greenpeace, CCS will only be a commercially viable option in 2030. It seems naïve to rely so heavily on a technology that has still not been completely proven to be effective on the large scale. Moreover, the need for CCS technology should technically be mostly non-existent come 2030 because current projections already require the heavy use of renewable energy sources by that time. Professor Lackner, however, disagrees and argues that “[CCS] will never be viable unless there are regulations which say you must implement it.”

Another concern with the bill is that it does not require reductions below current levels until 2030. By requiring the majority of reductions to be carried out in the long term, the bill seems to be a mere attempt to respond to short-term political concerns rather than attempting to address the urgency of global warming.

Though there are a number of problems surrounding the Waxman-Markey Bill, it is at least a step in the right direction. The absence of a comprehensive plan from the U.S. leading up to Copenhagen is disconcerting, but it is certainly a relief that climate change has not been completely neglected as it had been for eight years under President George W. Bush. Gerrard agrees but believes there is much work to be done: “I think that we do know that vigorous and expensive measures are going to be needed by all developed and rapidly developing countries of the world and I hope that the U.S. picks up its fair share of the burdens.” Gerrard will be attending the Copenhagen summit as part of the Columbia delegation.

Lackner offers a slight bit of optimism, stating, “If Copenhagen can assert a set of goals and can set targets and define a direction, that will be an enormous step forward, even if Copenhagen cannot tell the world all the details.” The hope of an outline being drawn at the conference is undoubtedly dissatisfying. Yet, the obvious change in tone about climate change in the lead up to Copenhagen offers some kind of solace. Abroad and at home, there is a growing consensus that the issues surrounding climate change transcend pure science and require us as a human race to set aside differences and make the right political choices. As with many of today’s most pressing concerns, our time to resolve the issue of climate change is finite, but our ability to contain this phenomenon is potentially infinite.