May 16, Progressive Party with Sen. Schumer Get tickets

A Missed Climate Opportunity

President Bush will convene a meeting of major greenhouse gas emitters this Thursday—a good idea if he were prepared to exploit its potential. Unfortunately, all indications suggest that he is not.

The nature of the group is not the problem. We are actually proponents of a small group process, and earlier this year, we wrote an article calling for the creation of a permanent “E8” of key developed and developing countries that would meet annually at the head-of-state level to address core ecological dangers. Global environmental issues have typically been addressed with broad U.N. conventions—there are 191 members of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change—and the process is often maddeningly slow and cumbersome, with too little high-level involvement and too little accomplishment. We need a new approach that can break through the bureaucratic clutter.

A small forum like an E8 or the major emitters group proposed by the president could force high-level engagement and create a kind of global board of directors that would be able to operate swiftly and effectively outside the bureaucracy and politics of the U.N. Such a group would be small enough to facilitate informal, productive dialogue, while also having a large enough environmental footprint—potentially representing over 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions—that concrete agreements among its own members could produce important global results. A small but powerful group could also be extremely influential in setting a course for broader U.N. talks.

Yet the Bush administration sees the fundamental mission of the group as creating purely aspirational long-term goals for reducing emissions without mandates to back them up. The Bush administration says that it prefers avoiding economy-wide emissions limits in favor of focusing on reducing emissions in key sectors such as power, buildings, and transportation, and on developing policies for energy efficiency, clean coal, and biofuels.

Again, the problem isn’t the focus on sectors and policies, but that they want to proceed in a soft, voluntary manner that leaves every country free to do as much or little as it pleases. A similar approach based on developing hard, joint commitments by the member countries could be very productive.

A strong core group of countries could accomplish ambitious goals if they are willing to commit to strong, joint commitments. A possible agreement could include:

  • Enacting national programs to sharply increase energy efficiency.
  • Developing a “clean coal” initiative with China aimed at rapidly bringing carbon capture and sequestration technology—which would capture CO2 emissions and bury them in geologic storage sites—to full-scale commercial use.
  • Enact national policies to dramatically accelerate the penetration of hybrid vehicles into the marketplace.
  • Drive the enhanced use of renewable energy through a renewable electricity standard and a renewable fuel standard.

The group could additionally work on ideas for a larger post-Kyoto accord built around binding commitments, with the nature of those commitments open to discussion.

President Bush has, unfortunately, always rejected strong measures to combat climate change, and the administration’s comments about the upcoming meeting make it clear that he has not had a change of heart. Without serious changes, his new major emitters group will fall flat. Indeed, there is a risk that it could be counterproductive if it provides a bandwagon for other reluctant countries to jump on.

Our climate problem is urgent, and it is worsening faster than science predicted. Voluntary efforts are unlikely to contain climate change, but the president’s new forum could make a contribution if it had the right mandate. President Bush’s approach itself has the potential to bring about urgently needed change.