Kennedy School Researchers Create a Framework for the Next Global Climate Change Agreement
Magazine or Newspaper Article, John F. Kennedy School of Government Bulletin, pages 24-25
Author: Sasha Talcott, Former Director of Communications and Outreach
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Harvard Project on Climate Agreements
The world has reached a tipping point in terms of public awareness of the challenge of global climate change, and in terms of willingness to act. Not only did Time magazine splash the iconic photo of a polar bear floating on ice on its cover last year, but Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth, brought the issue to life for millions of viewers. Even Sports Illustrated devoted a cover to “Sports and Global Warming: As the planet changes, so do the games we play.”
Professor Robert Stavins, like many who study the issue, views climate change as the ultimate global commons challenge: Greenhouse gases emitted in China or India or the United States affect us all, wherever we are, all over the world. The world’s first major attempt to address the problem, the Kyoto Protocol, when signed, garnered praise as a landmark breakthrough toward curbing the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. It put the majority of the burden on major developed countries — which are responsible for the bulk of the greenhouse gases now in the atmosphere. It also relied on a market-based approach — creating the potential for cost-effective emissions reductions.
However, it also drew ire, especially in the United States, where fast economic growth in the 1990s made the Kyoto Protocol’s goal of reducing emissions 7 percent below 1990 levels extraordinarily challenging and costly. Additionally, Stavins argues that, by not including major emitters such as China and India, the protocol set up the potential for “emissions leakage,” in which future polluters locate their operations in places where it’s cheaper to pollute.
Whether or not one agrees with Kyoto, a second step is required. To that end, Stavins has launched the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements, a two-year effort to identify key design elements of a future international agreement on climate change, drawing upon the ideas of leading thinkers from academia, private industry, government, and advocacy organizations. The project aims to help develop a plan that is “scientifically sound, economically rational, and politically pragmatic” — not to mention palatable to both developed and developing countries.
The project stems from a workshop last year hosted by the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, which brought together 27 leading thinkers from around the world from economics, law, political science, business, international relations, and the natural sciences. Together participants developed and refined six policy frameworks — each an idea that could form the backbone of a new international agreement. These range from a stronger version of the Kyoto Protocol to entirely new recommendations. The six plans are the subject of a book Stavins coedited with Joseph Aldy (of Resources for the Future, an environmental think tank in Washington, DC), Architectures for Agreement: Addressing Global Climate Change in the Post-Kyoto World. The six plans form the underpinnings of the first phase of the Harvard Project.
“I don’t think anyone has cornered the market on wisdom in this realm,” Stavins says. “What appears to be attractive from an office in Cambridge, Mass., or New Haven, Conn., is not necessarily the optimal policy architecture. I very much go in with an open mind.”
The six proposals range in approach from the centralized, to the regional, to the unilateral.
The Kennedy School’s Jeffrey Frankel calls for quantitative emissions reduction targets set by formulas, which would use factors such as historic emissions, current emissions, and income per capita. But while similar to Kyoto’s centralized, multilateral process toward setting emissions targets, this proposal would include developing countries, by indexing their emissions targets to economic growth.
“Climate Clubs” are at the centerpiece of Stanford political scientist David Victor’s plan. Aimed at solving the challenge of getting all countries to believe it’s in their self-interest to join an international climate agreement, the proposal calls for a small group of the most important countries for climate change to join in negotiations and make country-level pledges of action, with periodic reviews. The plan also urges integrating climate policy with issues of importance to the developing world, such as local air pollution, energy generation, and economic development.
William Pizer, of Resources for the Future, emphasizes national action, rather than international coordination based on negotiated agreements. The system would work through a nonbinding pledge-and-review process, providing a venue for countries to review others’ commitments and lobby one another. There would be no penalties for noncompliance, relying instead on a policy of “naming and shaming.”
With the initial stage ending in December, the project is now moving to a second phase: conducting economic modeling and policy analysis to develop a small set of promising policy frameworks and key elements. In stage three, they will communicate those ideas to policymakers and media worldwide, including the new presidential administration and Congress.
“Our niche is bringing together the best scholars, and making sure decision makers are as informed as possible,” says Aldy, who previously served as senior economist for the environment to the Council of Economic Advisers under President Clinton.
Ultimately, Stavins says, he hopes countries around the world will adopt the project’s recommendations as they move forward with climate negotiations. But he’d also be happy with something more modest: “At the end of two years, if we help countries of the world be open to better, more progressive policy approaches, we will have succeeded,” he says.
Sasha Talcott is director of communications and outreach at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
For more information about this publication please contact the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements Coordinator at 617-496-8054.
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