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On the Environment
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In the run-up to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, Maurice Strong, the Conference’s Secretary General, noted that there are only two possibilities when the world’s leaders come together: success or real success. In defiance of this characterization, the Copenhagen Summit in December turned out to be neither. Although there had been no possibility of a “beyond Kyoto” treaty for many months, the extent of the chaos surrounding the negotiations was unpredicted and unfortunate. Poor management on the part of the Danish authorities coupled with the undisciplined behavior on the part of various other parties led to negotiations that spun badly out of control.
Not all the news is bad, of course. After years of failing to
participate seriously in the climate change negotiations, the United
States is finally back in the game. The principle of “common but
differentiated responsibilities” was, moreover, reestablished as the
foundation for any new treaty. China and India signaled that they are
prepared to take action. And progress was made on the important issues
of forest protection, adaptation, and funding for the least developed
Yet Copenhagen has left us with a number of important lessons that must shape the climate negotiations process going forward. First, the participation of too many parties is bound to make the negotiations unwieldy and unproductive. The best path to reaching an effective climate deal would accordingly involve a set of “pivotal” states. A group of about 15 nations, selected based on demographic logic (i.e., the scale of their emissions), bolstered by 5-8 other countries that serve as representatives of key groups, such as the island nations, would make sense. Such a core negotiating group should produce an agreement to present to the rest of the world that provides incentives for all to participate in the form of funding for mitigation and adaptation.
Second, the science-driven agenda promoted at Copenhagen by the EU proved not to be sufficient. Reaching an effective climate deal has clearly become an issue of power politics. Although good climate policy requires a foundation in good science, climate change cannot be solved based on science alone. What is needed is commitment by key countries, including the U.S., China, and India. Such an agreement, however, will be difficult as long as China remains hesitant about revealing emissions data—and the U.S. cannot mobilize for action. In the modern world, transparency is essential, and sound data, metrics, and indicators are fundamentally good policy. And part of the challenge in getting the U.S. Congress to vote for a climate change action plan stems from a fear that major trade competitors, most notably China, will not take real action. So reporting and verification mechanisms are critical to having climate change legislation move in the United States.
Given the challenges that are present both domestically for the United States and globally in terms of forming a “beyond Kyoto” agreement, even if the focus is narrowed to a pivotal group of states, it may now be time to think about a new approach. While national governments must ultimately work together in forming a comprehensive solution to climate change, an alternative parallel plan should involve a more disaggregated set of incentives, implemented on a country-by-country or subnational basis, directed toward promoting a post-carbon future. National and local jurisdictions moving forward after Copenhagen should accordingly work to engage the private sector in pursuing green energy innovation.
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A guest post by Jacob Meyer, Research Assistant, Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy
In the 2010 EPI, the relationship between Environmental Health and log GDP per capita typifies a logistic function, colloquially known as an S-curve. The S-curve is a well-known relationship that can be found across disciplines. Chemistry, physics, biology, linguistics, statistics, and economics all find evidence of behaviors that follow the S-curve model. In economics, it is typically employed to describe the pace of technology adoption or innovation. There is often a slow start, followed by a period of rapid advancement, which tapers to slower ending. That the Environmental Health scores follow this pattern is not surprising; public health has always been a major concern of policymakers.
What is perhaps more surprising is that the scores for Ecosystem Vitality do not follow the same pattern. Part of this can be explained by the fact that industrialization has historically required enormous consumption of fossil fuels. However, the data are widely dispersed, and the regressed relationship does not appear to be very strong. This implies that the measures that make up the Ecosystem Vitality score have not received the attention that policymakers have given Environmental Health indicators in the developed world. The data calls for more research – better understanding the relationship between ecosystem protection and economic development could help rapidly developing countries avoid the past environmental errors of the developed world.
The latest Environmental Performance Index (EPI), produced by the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy and by the Center for International Earth Science Information Network at Columbia University, was released this week, identifying Iceland as the world leader in addressing pollution control and natural resource management challenges. The rankings cover 25 metrics aggregated into ten categories including: air pollution, water resource management, forestry, biodiversity and habitat, and climate change. Iceland is followed in the rankings by Switzerland, Costa Rica, Sweden, and Norway, each having a broad-based commitment to environmental protection. The countries found at the bottom of the rankings are mainly from the African continent. Their low ranks are based on very weak results in terms of environmental health measures, as they lack basic amenities such as clean water and sanitation.
The latest rankings, made public in a session at the World Economic Forum in Davos this week, again show a number of European countries at the higher end of the spectrum, though there were a number of surprises. For one, Costa Rica is ranked third, reflecting its substantial efforts towards environmental protection, while building its economy and strengthening its national identity. Meanwhile, the U.S. ranks 61st globally, which is a reflection of weak performance on greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. However, since the data is mainly from 2007 and 2008, the results do not reflect the Obama Administration’s environmental efforts, but rather represent the years of environmental neglect that preceded his inauguration.
The 2010 EPI provides a pilot experiment of looking at trend data. The rankings provide an interesting way to see, on an issue-by-issue basis, who has succeeded and who has fallen short in terms of policy performance. Collecting such information makes it easier to both identify best policy practices, and to disseminate such information. However, efforts to collate “Change EPI index” – that is data that helps us to understand who is making progress, and who is stagnant or declining – has proven to be difficult.
The 2010 EPI also enables one to identify drivers of policy success, using a variety of tools. The EPI shows that the most important determinants for success are the level of GDP and the scale of investments directed toward environmental protection. Yet at every level of development some countries perform better than anticipated, while others lag behind.
The EPI continues to be limited by available data. In many cases, there is not comprehensively collected or methodologically consistent data on important issues. A significant number of countries failed to report data in some key areas. The importance of sound data emerged as a major theme at Copenhagen, and it is of upmost importance that we invest in better environmental metrics and in the external verification of the data reported.
The EPI shows the importance of using quantitative tools in the decisionmaking progress, as it enables policymakers to benchmark progress. It demonstrates the value of being able to understand the strengths and weaknesses of existing policy and strengthen those that work. The full results and accompanying analysis are available at http://epi.yale.edu.
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