The Road from Cancun

In the aftermath of last year’s climate policy debacle in Copenhagen, South Korea is pointing the way to a creative new approach to solving the world’s climate problem.

Two events that occurred simultaneously last week in Cancún crystallized both the challenge and the opportunity facing world leaders as they wrap up the latest round of climate negotiations.

In one room in the Cancún Messe, Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh convened a meeting to discuss “equitable access to the world’s carbon space.” Speakers from countries including China and Malaysia made a powerful case for an agreement that recognizes that most industrial countries have already used up their rightful share of the world’s carbon budget—and that all future emissions should be allocated to developing countries.

Meanwhile, just 100 meters away, South Korea hosted an event with a different tone. Led by former Korean Prime Minister Han Seung-soo and former World Bank chief economist Nicholas Stern, the event focused on South Korea’s Green Growth Initiative—a new program that is aimed at transforming the country’s economy from the resource- and carbon-intensive model that drove its development to a new one based on the efficient use of energy and resources.

South Korea’s initiative is groundbreaking in several ways. It is led by the country’s president, whose strong environmental credentials include having cleaned up the Han River when he was mayor of Seoul. It has broad public support, including from the major opposition party, and it is being implemented via detailed and forceful legislation. And, despite early opposition from energy-intensive sectors such as steel and cement, the initiative has been embraced by the country’s major companies. Firms such as Hyundai and Samsung have responded by creating their own “green growth” strategies, including entering into new business areas such as solar energy, wind power, electric vehicles, and zero-emission factories.

But what is really impressive about South Korea’s initiative is the “just-do-it” philosophy that drives it. The country’s leaders are frustrated by the maddeningly slow and ideological character of the climate negotiations. They are firmly—and accurately—convinced that the global economy is no longer sustainable on its current track, and that those who choose to seize the “early mover” advantage and pioneer the low-carbon, green industries of the future will strengthen their economies and create millions of jobs while also addressing a looming global crisis.

Meanwhile, speakers at the Indian Government’s “equitable access” event argued that industrial countries owe developing countries between $4 trillion and $40 trillion in “climate reparations” over the next 40 years. According to their analysis, industrial countries should be limited immediately to a small fraction of their current emissions—and any excess of emissions over that amount should trigger large payments to developing countries whose emissions should not be constrained until their per capita levels approach those in the richer countries.

This argument has a powerful moral logic. Industrial countries are indeed responsible for most of the human-related greenhouse gases now in the atmosphere, and their advanced economies were made possible in part by decades of burning cheap fossil fuels. Developing countries, meanwhile, are expected to suffer the most from the rising seas and diminishing rainfall that are expected to accelerate in the coming decades.

But it is this very debate that has bedeviled climate negotiators since the first negotiating meeting in Berlin in 1995. The near-collapse of climate talks in Copenhagen last year and the recent shift in the political balance in Washington this fall have obliterated any remaining slivers of hope that a comprehensive, binding agreement is within reach. To the contrary, it is now clear that a continued North-South debate on how much each side should cut their emissions, and how to monetize the “right to pollute,” could proceed for another 16 years of climate negotiations—with equally slender results.

It’s hard to sum up a consensus among the thousands of government officials, industry representatives, NGO activists, and other hangers-on in Cancún this week. But buzzing through the thousands of conversations was a growing chorus of voices embracing the notion that even poor countries may find a low-carbon development model more advantageous than fighting for the right to be one of the last dominos in the fossil fuel economy. This shift in thinking may have been reflected in the fact that speakers at the Indian government event spoke to a half-empty room, while the Korean event was standing-room only.

It is now clear that Copenhagen was a turning point in international climate negotiations.  We can no longer keep doing the same thing and expecting different results.  Nor can we afford to go on making the perfect the enemy of the good.

It is therefore time for the climate negotiations to focus on immediate and practical steps forward rather than the kind of comprehensive global agreement that generated such contention in Copenhagen. The longer the world waits to embrace the notion that there is a solution to the climate problem that involves economic hope and opportunity, rather than depression and sacrifice, the less chance we will have of stabilizing the climate before it’s too late.

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