What do we make of the prospects for global action on the climate crisis, given recent events both in the U.S. Congress and in the international conversations leading up to Copenhagen? Something very peculiar is going on. Most of the major players are moving in the right direction -- toward making their economies less dependent on carbon dioxide. China is making massive investments in clean-energy technology, India has recognized that a carbon dependent development trajectory is bad news for a country that has relatively poor fossil-fuel reserves, South Korea has committed to an ambitious goal, Indonesia is practically begging for help solving its deforestation and peat-emission problems, Brazil is at least offering decent numbers, Russia has put forward a modest goal, Japan has upped the ante even though it already has the world's most carbon-efficient economy, and Europe is hanging in there.
Even the United States, justifiably excoriated as an unwilling laggard, is actually decarbonizing its economy at a remarkable rate. Only three years ago, projections were that U.S. emissions of CO2 would increase from 6 billion tons to 7.5 billion tons by 2020. Instead of increasing, they flattened out and then fell. By year's end we will be 8.5 percent below 2005, down to 5.5 billion. And the government estimates that, even with an economic recovery, we'll only get back to 5.9 billion tons if we do nothing more at all. And getting the 20 percent in additional cuts that Congress is groaning about would in fact be almost trivially easy.
Yet, in spite of the fact that the major parties at Copenhagen are actually pretty much in synch, they are unlikely to make any significant breakthroughs. At the Singapore meeting of the world's leaders, it was formally recognized that the most that could come out of Copenhagen was a "political" agreement -- not a binding one -- and that a huge amount of work would be needed to reach a final deal.
Reactions varied. Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the IPCC, conceded that the announcement was a recognition of the realities, but lamented that it also signaled "an abandonment of moral responsibility that a position of leadership on the world stage clearly implies." Joe Romm, from the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions, wrote that the announcement makes "the prospects for a successful international deal far more likely -- and at the same time increases the chance for Senate passage of the bipartisan climate and clean energy bill..." The Wall Street Journal reported that "International efforts to combat climate change took a significant blow when the leaders of the APEC forum conceded a binding international treaty won't be reached when the UN convenes in Copenhagen..."
Why is this so hard?
Well, U.S. politics doesn't help. The Congressional resistance is driven by two factors -- one is hyper-partisanship and the unwillingness of the Republican congressional leadership to concede that climate change is a real problem, or to give the Obama administration a victory on jump-starting a clean-energy economy, a goal that remains wildly popular (largely for reasons unrelated to climate).
The second is the reality -- thus far successfully covered up by Big Carbon -- that the U.S., because its economy includes so much carbon waste, is beautifully positioned to cut its CO2 emissions very fast in a way that is very good for the overall economy -- but very bad for coal and oil. Senators and representatives from the coal belt and oil patch are afraid of passing a strong climate bill not because it will be hard to achieve ambitious goals, but because it will be easy. And once we kick our addiction to fossils, there will be no turning back from the future.
But the larger problem for Copenhagen is the lack of trust. Poor nations believe that the industrial nations are not prepared to clean up the mess that they created -- and they also fear that we intend to leave them with the bill for the damages that climate change does to their vulnerable economies and societies. Emerging economic powers like China and India suspect that we intend to monopolize clean-energy technology so that we can continue our dominant position in the world economy for another century. The U.S. fears that China will use cheap, high-carbon electricity and weak emission standards to increase its already dominant position in global manufacturing and exports. Brazil and Indonesia are convinced that rich nations want to deny them the right to convert their primary forests into drivers of economic development, so that we can continue to rely on those forests as carbon sinks for our carbon pollution.
So even though all these nations are largely moving in a compatible direction, they don't trust each other enough to commit in ways that would accelerate that progress. This is not uncommon in international negotiations -- and the solution is well known -- identify measures that are small enough that nations will commit even in the absence of deep trust but which, if everyone does what they promise, will be win-wins. After that, go on to the bigger steps. Diplomats understand this confidence-building process fully -- but it has no robust forum in global climate negotiations, and that's a shame.
How do we build that needed trust? Here are just a few opportunities the world could do together:
1. Jointly and collaboratively develop both clean-energy solutions and ecosystem restoration strategies to sequester more carbon in the world's biosphere.
We all know that we need new technologies and a better understanding of how to use the natural world to protect ourselves. Technology sharing is good -- but technology collaboration, where the resources of Brazilian biologists and Indian software pioneers and Korean metallurgists and American materials scientists are all combined, would go even further to solve the climate crisis.
2. Stop methane leaks and make money for natural gas drilling and pipeline companies. The most sophisticated pipeline and gas-drilling companies have reduced their fugitive emissions of natural gas (methane) by more than 80 percent in the past few years -- but other systems are still leaking like the proverbial sieve --wasting money and devastating the climate. Let's help everyone adopt the best practices. After all, it is profitable to do so.
3. Use solar power to light the world's un-electrified villages. About a quarter of humanity -- more than 1.5 billion people -- have no electricity. They light their homes with kerosene. But rooftop solar power is already cheaper than kerosene -- it just needs financing, infrastructure, and supply-chain improvement. Provide those, and the poorest quarter of humanity can go solar. Google talks about wanting "R < C" -- meaning renewable power cheaper than coal. Well, for a quarter of the world, solar is already cheaper than fossil fuel. If we simply deploy at scale, then they can buy it for themselves.
4. Clean up the world's shipping fleet, thereby solving the problem of coastal air pollution and helping to reduce the black carbon that is melting glaciers and the Arctic ice cap. Ships burn the dirtiest fuel on the planet -- bunker fuel. They would actually work much better with cleaner sources, and we ought to mandate an oceanic cleanup.
5. Modernize diesel engines of all kinds to get rid of their soot pollution, another major contributor to public health disasters as well as Arctic and glacial melting. This is conventional clean air technology that will save lives now (and water supplies and climactic stability later).
6. Finally, let's make sure that poor families can at least burn their wood or cow dung cleanly and efficiently in simple stoves, not filthily and wastefully on open fires. Substituting cook stoves, even ones made of mud, for open fires, can dramatically improve health conditions in poor villages all over the world, while also curbing the sooty black carbon that is melting the snows of both Kilimanjaro and the Himalayas.
This is just a partial list -- but if carried out it would have enormous climate benefits while also building trust for the remainder of our clean-energy challenge and making life better for billions of people at a price we can certainly afford.