Past Seminar

Salvaging an Opportunity on Global Climate Change

About the Event

Salvaging an Opportunity on Global Climate Change                                                  

by Ruth Greenspan Bell and Sarah Rispin                                                                                                       (Printer-Friendly Version)

This week’s U.N. Conference on Climate Change in Milan might have been crowned by announcement of ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. But doubts were raised about the protocol’s prospects by an unusual war of words in Russia last week. One of Vladimir Putin’s aides said that reducing Russian dependence on fossil fuels could harm that country’s prospects for economic growth. Another official indicated that the Russians may yet go the other way and decide that ratification is in their best interest.

Because the U.S. and Australia have already rejected the treaty, Russia is in a singularly powerful position, signaled by Kofi Annan’s public plea to Russia to ratify so that the international community can salvage six years of collective efforts on climate change. Kyoto requires that countries representing 55 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions be on board, and Russia remains the only country large enough to push the treaty past that mark. Ironically, the Russian wobble is happening at the same time that support seems to be increasing in the U.S. Senate and in parts of the U.S. business community for doing something about global warming.

As we hold our breath, we should take notice that the fact that Russia is in a position to deal a finishing blow to the protocol shows some real holes in the treaty and highlights some opportunities.

Even if flawed, the Kyoto notion that it was within our collective grasp to tackle this potentially explosive problem was a hopeful one, and one that should be difficult to give up. Managing greenhouse gas emissions is precisely the sort of collective action problem to which the international treaty mechanism seems best suited.

But what may get lost in the calls for a return to the negotiating table is the fiction underlying the agreement – that all of the countries that have signed or might sign the treaty are equipped and ready to bring its goals to fruition. This is not yet the case.

Developing countries are generally ill equipped, legally, financially, and technologically, to implement the regulatory mechanisms that would ratchet down their use of greenhouse gases. And many developed countries are unwilling to risk losing industry and jobs to countries exempted from these requirements. This is what has brought us down to the 55 percent threshold.

Indeed, from an economic perspective, it seems clear that a more efficient way of limiting emissions may be to encourage reductions in developing manufacturing nations such as China and India that employ relatively inefficient, polluting energy production and industrial processes to produce an increasing proportion of the world’s consumer goods. Hence the emphasis on a global greenhouse gas emissions trading program.

But such a program is a long way off. Ultimately, adherence to Kyoto or any similar framework will be a problem of domestic will and capacity, especially in developing countries. Many of these countries seem helpless against their own domestic environmental challenges. The residents of their cities are choking from fouled urban air and their water is frequently undrinkable – indicators of inability to implement the existing environmental laws already on their books. This troubling shortfall raises substantial doubts as to their ability to tackle the complex issue of greenhouse gas emissions in compliance with an international framework.

Until there is progress on these domestic issues—finding the will in developed nations, and a way in developing nations—we will not be able to gain traction on the problem of global warming. International law can carry us a certain distance, but not further than the individual nations of the international system are willing to go. To tackle this global problem, we must first renew our local attentions.

So perhaps Russia’s prevarication offers us an opportunity: the chance to reconsider how to put together a more viable framework that is more likely to engender support from industry in the U.S. and other developed nations, and best manages the extraordinary complexities of reversing climate change. A key to this may be considerable legal and technological assistance to developing countries now to enable them to make a more substantial and guaranteed contribution to tackling the problem of greenhouse gas emissions.

Putting in this work now is at once the smartest way to solve a problem of increasing domestic and international concern, and ensure ourselves against defections the next time around.


Ruth Greenspan Bell is a resident scholar at Resources for the Future in Washington, D.C. Resources for the Future improves environmental and natural resource policymaking through objective social science research of the highest caliber. Sarah Rispin is a law clerk in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals and previously was a China analyst for the Economist Group in Asia.