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The Consensus before the Consensus

By Mikaela Bradbury | June 9, 2009

White roof paint. Credit: Chris Dick (CC).

In the lead up to the Copenhagen climate conference (COP15), various parties are coming together to agree, or to agree to disagree, before sitting down at the major negotiating table. Building mini-consensuses before the Consensus is the best way anything will get done in December.

Here is a quick glance at five areas with friction and promise:

1. The United States and China

The most critical need for common ground is between China and the United States. The big wrench in the works for the Kyoto Protocol was American unwillingness to ratify the treaty, due to the exclusion of major emitters like China and India because of their status as developing countries. Given the current economic slump and recent whiffs of protectionism, the United States is still unlikely to support an agreement that disproportionately penalizes its economy.

Given these factors, the United States and top Chinese officials have been "seeking a consensus on positions to take to the Copenhagen conference." No pre-consensus has been reached yet—China still views global warming as the responsibility of the most developed countries.

To make matters worse, a recent report claims that more than a third of China's recent emissions are due to Western demand for its cheaply manufactured goods. Leveraging this data, China is proposing to shift responsibility for its CO2 emissions to consuming nations.

Some worry that the focus on "offshored emissions" and consumption as culprits of global warming could undermine "the whole global accounting system for greenhouse gases," due to "the complexity of double-accounting." Furthermore, penalizing Western consumption of Chinese goods could backfire on China's economy and potentially that of the United States as well, if overall consumer spending power is afflicted.

2. Barack and a Hard Place: Congress

On the domestic front, the Obama administration is racing to gather support for climate change legislation before Copenhagen, in the face of strong opposition from rust-belt states.

If the administration is to accommodate China, then Obama may need greater negotiating latitude than Congress is likely to provide. The possibility of using an executive-congressional agreement has been floated as a means to bypass the high bar of international treaty ratification.

There would be a certain irony in such a scenario. Namely, in redressing Bush era wounds over unilateralism, Obama may have to alienate and defy another community: the one at home. However, as Policy Innovations editor Devin Stewart has suggested, Obama may have to abandon his strategy of "moderation in policymaking," in order to do something radical for climate change.

3. COMESA: Eastern and Southern African States

African Ministers came together recently to consolidate their position on how to approach the COP15 talks and to ensure that small African farmers are not "overlooked" in the negotiations. African states want to gain recognition and payment for sustainable agriculture systems and reforestation efforts that reduce emissions, under the Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation initiative (REDD).

As the COP14 meeting in Poznan in late 2008 demonstrated, the inclusion of agriculture and forestry systems into a carbon-trading scheme has proven difficult, given the murkiness about where to draw the line on land-use systems that are carbon mitigating, such as "conservation, sustainable management of forests, changes in forest cover."

Furthermore, much like the Clean Development Mechanism, REDD may exclude small poor farmers who lack well-defined land rights and the ability to navigate complicated and costly bureaucratic transactions. As a policy paper for the UNFCCC warns, REDD could even exacerbate rural poverty, as increased demand for forest and agricultural products and decreased land availability conspire to create higher land prices. There is the additional danger of government and industry funneling resources into cash crops and energy crops on remaining land at the expense of subsistence-based farming.

In order to remedy these potential pitfalls, COP15 could establish measures that shift international demand toward sustainably harvested products. This can be achieved through effective labeling and monitoring of illegal trade, as well as reconsideration of biofuel quotas to meet emissions standards. On the side of developing countries, improved administrative capacity will be needed to empower the rural poor to gain access to carbon-trading schemes.

4. Scientists, Engineers, Entrepreneurs, and Pundits

From geo-engineering to biofuels, there are constant shifts and breakthroughs in what constitutes the most effective portfolio of responses to global warming. Recent debate among scientists is over a new wonder substance called "biochar" (a fancy word for charcoal). The substance would be used primarily for carbon sequestration, but could also contribute to soil fertility.

Despite the endorsement of scholars James Lovelock and James Hansen, and author Chris Goodall, others such as columnist George Monbiot have disparaged biochar's status as a miracle cure. Their critiques are similar to the assault on biofuel viability: Namely, that it could lead to inequitable land conversion that escalates food prices and marginalizes the poor. In addition, Monbiot claims that the exact impact of biochar on soil fertility is unclear.

Given the sensitivity of earth's ecosystems and today's global economy, every solution to global warming will have its costs and risks. Anticipating and mitigating the repercussions fairly will be the challenge.

5. Dr. Chu's Bucket of White Paint

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu's recent suggestion that everyone paint their roof white to stave off global warming may find opponents deep in the trenches of local city councils. For example, brush-ready enviros have to contend with local conservation laws and planning codes that prohibit the alteration of houses as viewed from the street. But given the scale of the climate battle, these local skirmishes may be refreshingly simple. Thank you, Dr. Chu.


Despite all the pre-negotiation negotiations, COP15 may yet provide plenty of pleasant and unpleasant surprises. The more common ground that factions can establish before the conference, the better the chance of achieving an effective global climate deal.

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Read More: Development, Diplomacy, Economy, Energy, Environment, Science, Sustainability, Technology, Trade, China, United States, Global

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