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Innovate America: Remaking the Global Climate Framework

Two months ago, hundreds of world leaders and tens of thousands of activists gathered in Copenhagen to craft a new global treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol in 2012. Green groups put on a spectacle – yes, Greenpeace even docked two of its famous boats nearby to “help in pushing the delegates” – and some observers declared it a make or break event in global climate history.

Today, there is strikingly little to show for the whole affair, momentum has slowed to a crawl and hardly anyone is discussing the aftermath. For good reason: the Copenhagen Accord is basically a voluntary agreement with obscure objectives, and its impact will be negligible. Michael Cutajar, the former chairman of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiation group, said that “Beyond the lack of clarity in its drafting, its main weakness is the lack of ambition and identifying responsibilities… Who should do what, and when, in order to limit warming to two degrees?”

What went wrong at Copenhagen? As I recently argued on BBC World View, the outcome was primarily the result of a flawed UNFCCC process and policy framework. The first and most obvious problem was imagining that 192 countries – some of which represent thousands of times more people than others – could produce a meaningful climate mitigation treaty. The UNFCCC process is kind of like the U.S. Senate (today one of the most dysfunctional national legislative bodies in the world) but at least four times as complicated.

There is growing consensus that global climate mitigation policy should be moved into a setting like the G-20 or Major Economies Forum on Energy & Climate (the members of which effectively constitute a super-majority of the world). David Victor, a former Stanford professor and leading international energy expert, recently put it this way: “With a deal this complicated and difficult, the fewer countries you need to reach an agreement, the better the chances are.”

The second overarching problem was the policy framework. For nearly two decades, the dominant national and global policy approach to climate change mitigation has depended on establishing strong, “legally binding” caps on carbon dioxide pollution, particularly through cap and trade and other measures aimed at making fossil fuels more expensive.

Today, the writing is on the wall: the Kyoto Protocol failed to achieve significant emissions reductions, even with a “legally-binding” agreement. As President Obama himself noted in his post-Copenhagen press conference, “Kyoto was legally binding and everybody still fell short anyway.” Copenhagen failed to produce a binding treaty, even with great pressure and expectations. If the world moves ahead with this approach once again, negotiations will again fail to produce a meaningful outcome.

The time has come to remake the global climate policy framework to focus on global energy technology policy. Instead of debating emissions targets and timetables like accountants, we need the largest emitters to think like engineers and concentrate on identifying specific technical hurdles and mobilizing the resources to solve them. Most importantly, policymakers need to focus on the goal of “making clean energy cheap,” or as Google puts it, “renewable energy cheaper than coal.”

How much money will each major emitter put on the table to invest in development, deployment and infrastructure of low-carbon technology? What hurdles will those policies confront, and what is each country’s low-carbon technological roadmap? How will the policies be structured, and how can nations productively collaborate and compete on technological development? These are the kind of critical questions that should be negotiated.

Some advocates claim that if the U.S. Senate passes climate legislation similar to the American Clean Energy & Security Act (ACESA), the UNFCCC will achieve a breakthrough. But little evidence suggests that China, India and other countries will respond by implementing strong binding targets, or that signatories will even uphold their emissions targets. ACESA is weak technology policy at best, given that its clean energy investments represent only a small fraction of expert consensus, and not the kind of example we want to set for the world.

The irony is that while the U.S. and Europe continue playing the accountants game of targets and timetables, Asian governments are the ones beginning to move forward with serious technology policies, investing massive amounts in clean-tech development and deployment – while the U.S. falls behind. This is motivated not by climate mitigation nor international law, of course, but economic competitiveness. We should leverage these efforts to motivate the policies we need in the U.S. and abroad, and to develop a new global climate framework.

Ultimately, technology policy is the single the most important lever the world has for overcoming this challenge. The good news is that our civilization possesses enormous capacities for invention and innovation – now we must develop a global climate policy framework that finally puts them to good use.

Teryn Norris is a weekly columnist for The Stanford Daily, Director of Americans for Energy Leadership and Senior Advisor at the Breakthrough Institute. E-mail him at

  • Kristofer Sorbello

    Not long ago, I failed to give whole lot thought to writing comments on web log entries and have left opinions even less. Reading through your good blog, is going to inspire me to take action more regularly.

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