A Weak Showing at Doha

The recently wrapped up climate change conference will do little to put a dent in climate change emissions.
The United Nations climate talks that just wrapped up in Doha, Qatar over the weekend failed to produce the kind of internationally binding treaty needed to have any chance of keeping climate change at a (somewhat) manageable level. The ambition is far more modest: implementing past agreements and paving the way for a possible comprehensive treaty. The expiring Kyoto Protocol was renewed only by a small part of the globe, notably only EU member states Australia, Norway, Switzerland and a handful of other countries, representing less than15% of total emissions. A new agreement is unlikely until at least 2015. With wealthy countries historically responsible for the bulk of greenhouse-gas emissions, sparring about the responsibilities of rich versus poor countries for future emissions has long been an obstacle to progress.

Such sparring may mask the real problem in today’s world—a total failure to lead by the United States and China, the planet’s two largest economies and, not coincidentally, the two countries most responsible for the dangerously high levels of greenhouse-gas emissions. While it is true that both nations have taken some significant steps toward renewable energy and energy efficiency, given the scope of the problem these steps are woefully inadequate. And both countries stand in the way of a global treaty that would deliver the comprehensive program needed. This is a shame, for, like all countries, the United States and China will end up suffering greatly from climate change. And progress is possible. Each nation does have a path toward stable, sustainable, healthy economies, and enhanced international prestige, if only they would lead, through their actions and diplomatically.

Let’s start with the United States. Following his reelection, President Obama has stated that “I am a firm believer that climate change is real, that it is impacted by human behavior, and carbon emissions…And as a consequence, I think we’ve got an obligation to future generations to do something about it.” Powerful words! Yet, at the same news conference, Obama also said “I think the American people right now have been so focused, and will continue to be focused, on our economy and jobs and growth that…if the message is somehow, we’re going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don’t think anybody’s gonna go for that.” This repeats the fallacy of needing to choose between the economy and the environment. Yet a green Keynesian approach would create myriad jobs while making possible a clean future (see, SSPP Blog post, How Green Can Keynesianism Be?).

Since we need to rebuild the United States’ crumbling infrastructure anyway, it is best to do it sooner than later, in a clean way that provides wind, solar, and geothermal along with a national grid to dispatch them where needed, greatly augmenting energy efficiency, adding transit and encouraging dense urban areas. However, such a stimulus would need to be only temporary until we reach full employment and a clean, revamped infrastructure. In the long term, we will need to decelerate, to create a soft landing in a steady-state economy. A global agreement mandating a tax on greenhouse-gas emissions—that is, a consumption tax of the kind largely favored by economists—would help curb excessive consumption and move the United States toward an economy no longer based on unsustainable growth.

Alas, from a political point of view, this course of action seems impossible, as the United States remains fixated on the need to exploit fossil fuels. One would hope that President Obama would take a visionary approach, boldly telling the American people what needs to be done. Yet change rarely comes from the top alone; it takes, also, a grassroots mobilization far stronger than the American environmental movement has been able to propagate.

The more top-heavy China, even more obsessed with growth, is in the midst of an epic failure of the kind of leadership that might take them from aspiring superpower to global leader. With communism long dissipated as an ideological justification for their regime, China’s leaders are focused obsessively on delivering economic prosperity in the Western model, evidently fearing a loss of legitimacy should they be unable to deliver. Meanwhile, they use their status as a “developing” nation as a cloak to avoid taking any responsibility in a new climate treaty. While long-wealthy countries certainly bear a disproportionate share of the blame for climate change, this does not absolve rapidly developing countries from choosing a responsible path. As a Brookings Institution blog puts it, “dividing the world into two categories, of which only one has obligations, will be a non-starter in terms of solving any actual emissions problem.” China’s insistence on achieving around 8% growth year after year has made it the world’s largest climate emitter and given it coequal responsibility with the United States. The South China Morning Post argues, “China’s carbon dioxide output is now so huge—greater than that of the United States and the European Union combined, according to some estimates…that no international deal to tackle global warming can possibly work unless China agrees to cap its emissions.”

China’s incessant growth has come at a great cost to the environment, and to individuals in terms of growing income inequality. The obsession with maximizing gross domestic product (GDP) has endowed China with some of the most toxic water and choked air in the world, spurring widespread protest, undermining the internal stability that the government craves. If Chinese officials want legitimacy, it would seem critical to prioritize stability over growth. Indeed, in 2011 the government briefly announced an effort to lower growth to 7%, although it is now striving to grow faster. The New York Times explains some of the country’s thinking, since “to the extent China toughens its environmental standards, it could erode some of the competitive advantage of Chinese companies.” Yet this should provide incentive to sign an international climate agreement that would give China cover to prioritize the environment. If all countries had to maintain high environmental standards, none would lose any competitive advantage by doing so.

A true change in attitude, then, a willingness to decelerate growth and sign an international agreement limiting greenhouse-gas emissions, would likely increase China’s long-term stability, protect its people from environmental dangers, enhance its government’s legitimacy, and increase its status worldwide. If China were to take this route, the pressure on India, Brazil, and even the United States to follow would be great. Similarly, if America were to take the lead in a global environmental treaty, it could stabilize its own economic situation and put pressure on China and other countries to join. Alas, neither scenario seems likely to happen, as both nations seem locked in outdated thinking. Change is exceedingly difficult: it requires stepping back, taking the long view, and then implementing radically new policies in the face of entrenched interests and ways of thinking. The Doha conference and its aftermath seem likely to be another in a string of nonevents in which the world fails to adequately address the looming catastrophe of the 21st century.

This post first appeared in Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy and was reprinted here with permission.