The ingenious Obama proposal to offer a provisional US figure for carbon emission cuts just might, might just, save the Copenhagen summit from deflating embarrassingly. Obama can’t pre-empt a final Congressional decision in January or February at the earliest, but he is at least doing the next best thing. All the other big industrial countries have offered emission reductions, though with huge variation in carbon-cutting ambition, but without America, the world’s biggest per capita polluter, this precarious package will collapse. With a proposed US offer of some 14-20% below 2005 levels (a 17% cut has already passed the House of Representatives), subject to later ratification by Congress, the US offer, especially if Obama himself were to attend, might just be enough to get an political framework agreed. But the drama of this should not be over-stated. This summit isn’t, never was, a final, once-in-a-lifetime, conclusive deal to save the world, as some media have portrayed it. It is rather one step along the way of tedious, aggravated, semi-continuous, draining cross-global negotiations – but still undoubtedly an important one. But it’s not Kyoto Mark 2. Does that matter?
It probably matters less than one might think. Kyoto is certainly the gold standard since it was designed to be internationally binding, enforceable by a compliance mechanism. However, the process does not really have teeth. Countries that fall short of their targets in one period (the present one under Kyoto Mark 1 ends in 2012) are required to make even larger cuts in the next. But what if they don’t? Canada, for example, signed up to a 6% limited increase above 1990 levels, but has overshot its tarket by a whopping 29%. So how can Canada be boought to book? Within the EU, several southern States, particularly Spain, Portugal and Greece, have dramatically overreached their targets; but will they be punished by the EU Commission or other Member States?
So in this area where a system of genuinely world governance is needed – and the unending negotiations around climate change may well hasten it – the perfect should not be allowed to squeeze out the good. China and India and Brazil, whilst resisting explicit targets, have probably done more in recent years voluntarily to curb greenhouse gas emissions within their own territory than many other countries which have ostensibly sugned up to targets. And governments which have decided on their own targets and enforce them by domestic law are more likely to adhere to them than those pressurised to make last-minute concessions at international conferences. Nevertheless, the fatal weakness remains: what should, can, be done about free-riders and those countries that offer patently inadequate targets which then threaten to unravel the whole package?