The year 2009 marked a crucial juncture in the evolution of an international response to the threat of global climate change. Governments met in the Danish capital, Copenhagen, to negotiate a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. Unlike twenty years ago, countries around the world do not today disagree about the scientific basis of the climate issue, but they deeply disagree about the best way to move forward. The politics of climate change is fundamentally about two kinds of contestations. One is between the rich and the poor world and the other is between the EU and the USA. This article deals with the latter. The transatlantic disagreement is not about details and percentages; a much more fundamental disagreement about the organisation of international politics is at stake here.
Contesting Kyoto across the Atlantic
The Kyoto Protocol from 1997 mandates that developed countries reduce their emission of gases that contribute to climate change by about 5%. The Protocol is negligible in terms of reducing the threat, but it is nevertheless often seen as a crucial first step. The US was part of the negotiations in Kyoto but later rejected the protocol under the Bush administration. A transatlantic divide cemented in subsequent years. Today, while the EU heralds the Kyoto protocol as a diplomatic landmark and a model for successive treaties, the US argues that the Kyoto approach is ineffective, unrealistic and ultimately fails in delivering emission reductions as well as safeguarding participation from key emitters (like China, India and Brazil).
The Kyoto contestation across the Atlantic is fundamentally about how an international response should best be organised. It is a disagreement about whether international climate cooperation should be carried out in a universal or an autonomous fashion. When cooperation is universal, all countries agree to one single, comprehensive treaty with the United Nations as the main focal point. When cooperation is not organised around the UN, but instead evolves in an autonomous way, we can expect several treaties between (groups of) states and coordinated domestic actions to address the climate change problem.
Research in Europe has argued that not including all countries in a climate treaty automatically implies that it will be more costly to reduce emissions, because larger emission reductions have to be borne by fewer countries. But the drawback of universal treaties is that some countries achieve high costs out of proportion and thereby have little incentive to enter the treaty.
Two Incompatible Views
Building on Kyoto, the EU favours a UN-centred universal top-down climate agreement. Such an agreement uses quantitative emission reduction targets for individual countries. The EU would like all countries to agree on mandatory timetables for when those targets are to be met—for example, a 20% reduction by 2020. The EU hopes to achieve a gradual widening (more countries) and deepening (more ambitious reductions) in successive negotiations and treaties. This way of making policy is deeply ingrained in the EU. To set a target and outline steps to follow allows the EU to take account of the diverging circumstances of different member states in terms of economic development and the costs for reducing emissions.
In contrast, the US argues that a successor treaty modelled on Kyoto is the wrong tool for the climate challenge. Political pragmatism guides the US approach: how can a future climate treaty be brought in line with national interests of dominant sovereign states? The US advocates an autonomous bottom-up climate cooperation, building on voluntary national actions by major emitter countries (developed and developing). This myriad of domestic actions may organically evolve and eventually be linked, harmonized and coordinated to a global approach superior to that of UN.
Is There Any Common Ground?
Europe’s focus on normative visions for long-term targets and timetables is at odds with the political pragmatism of the US. The Bush administration’s blunt rejection of the Kyoto Protocol signified a wider reluctance to enter binding multilateral agreements that can constrain the US economy. This is not likely to change with President Obama and the transatlantic divide needs a large portion of diplomatic skill to be bridged. Issues like adaptation, deforestation and technological cooperation can provide common ground, but we might also expect the transatlantic divide to reappear over those issues at the Major Economies Forum and during the negotiations in Cancun under the climate convention in December 2010.
However, in the paralysed aftermath of the Copenhagen summit, and accounting for the deliberate attempts to delegitimize climate science, the EU and the US need to find constructive ways forward. As transatlantic partners they have earlier been able to find common ground in areas of international security, human rights, trade and finance, and could hopefully do so with regard to the planet’s climate. At the end of the day, both countries across the Atlantic have much to gain by an economic growth that shifts away from a carbon-based industrial development. What is needed is to jointly envisage the business opportunities involved in transitioning to a low-carbon economy.