Early days yet for Copenhagen

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A lot of bleak headlines today about how climate change talks in Copenhagen will fail. But the eulogies are a bit premature.

True, over the past year, world leaders have really been lowering the bar. Today, another round of dampening expectations made headlines, as leaders at this week’s APEC meeting are saying that a binding global accord in Copenhagen is out of reach. No one in their right mind believes that next month’s conference will produce a final treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol.

But let’s not fool ourselves. Those leaders were only saying out loud what everyone has been whispering for months.

The chances of success at Copenhagen were always dim, as they hinged on overcoming massive obstacles, not least of which is the distrust between rich and developing countries. Complicating matters significantly, the world’s biggest polluters are trade competitors. China, focused on lifting its population out of poverty, does not want to be bound to emissions reductions. The U.S., nursing a bruised economy, stresses over China’s unfair competitive advantage.

And yes, the world has been lackadaisical about implementing the Kyoto Protocol. It only went into effect in 2005, seven years after it was opened for signature in 1998 by the parties. And it takes time to develop economic, political and industrial policy, so the expectation of meeting emissions goals before 2012 always seemed a bit naive. With a few notable exceptions (Britain, Germany), we did little to pick up the pace.

Still, history teaches us that negotiating a meaningful global treaty is never swift and easy. It took decades to form the WTO and to build a common European market. Why should agreeing to a workable climate change treaty be any different?

Of course, as the deadline approaches, the news outlets are right to paint a bleak picture. And time is not a luxury we have in ample supply. But Copenhagen is not yet fated to be a failure. Recently, Connie Hedegaard, the Danish minister of climate and energy, emphasized the importance of sealing a deal in Copenhagen, saying “the world is watching. The world is waiting.” Hopefully there will be a more compelling reason to make talks in Copenhagen truly constructive. If the world’s governments don’t manage to generate some serious momentum behind a global climate change strategy, they run the risk of exposing their gross failures in leadership.