The UN's Copenhagen climate conference was substantive failure and procedural debacle. Other assessments are dishonest or delusional. We must learn the lessons of history and adapt climate policy to reflect them.
Big-picture lessons have been evident for nearly two decades.
First, a big-bang synchronised response by all nations to global climate threats is a pipe dream. This was acknowledged in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Rio in 1992 and in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Late last year, Copenhagen amplified this lesson.
Second, nations won't compromise economic growth by losing industry competitiveness in the name of mitigating climate change. This applies especially in the case of developing economies.
Third, a policy focused on where national emissions are produced, rather than where they are consumed, only made some sense under a big-bang synchronised global response. But it's been retained since 1992 despite failure to secure such a response.
Under a non-synchronised approach, this emissions production model generates national concerns about loss of competitiveness, job losses and carbon leakage. Nations won't play or will only play dirty, via extensive policy exemptions, using this model.
Fourth, a focus on emissions reduction targets and their distribution funnelled negotiations into sterile, zero sum debates about who will commit to what emissions reduction outcomes when. There has been insufficient emphasis on putting a price on emissions, comprehensively applied and growing predictably through time.
This caused many problems, including failure to start pricing emissions globally. No emissions price, no emissions reduction. No surprises there.
Fifth, we have failed to learn the preceding four lessons of history.
There are other lessons. Emissions trading schemes don't work well in a non-synchronised policy context. There is too much scope to avoid the policy by exploiting exemptions. They have had little effect on emissions where applied (carbon leakage aside).
They have produced highly volatile carbon prices (around a low average), and they're subject to all sorts of carve-outs, undermining their effectiveness. They have been "permit churn machines".
Carbon offset schemes such as the UN Clean Development Mechanism and the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation scheme are susceptible to corruption and fraud, as has been seen recently in Papua New Guinea.
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