Magazine Article - Outreach

Knowing Success if You See It

| November 28, 2010

The key challenge of the climate negotiations in Cancun — the Sixteenth Conference of the Parties (COP-16) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) — is to continue the process of constructing a sound foundation for meaningful, long-term global action. Some of the gloom-and-doom predictions made about these negotiations are misleading, because they are based upon unreasonable — and fundamentally inappropriate — expectations (despite the fact that expectations have been lowered dramatically since COP-15 in Copenhagen last year).

Keeping Your Eyes on the Prize

Why do I say that the best goal for the Cancun climate talks is to make real progress on a sound foundation for meaningful, long-term global action, not some notion of immediate triumph? This is because of some basic scientific and economic realities.

First, the focus of scientists is (and the focus of policy makers should be) on stabilizing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at acceptable levels by the year 2050 and beyond, because it is the accumulated stock of greenhouse gas emissions - not the flow of emissions in any year - that are linked with climate consequences.

Second, the cost-effective path for stabilizing concentrations involves a gradual ramp-up in target severity, to avoid rendering large parts of the capital stock prematurely obsolete.

Third, massive technological change is the key to the needed transition from reliance on carbon-intensive fossil fuels to more climate-friendly energy sources. Long-term price signals (most likely from government policies) will be needed to inspire such technological change.

Fourth and finally, the creation of long-lasting international institutions is central to addressing this global challenge.

This is not to suggest that there should be anything other than a sense of urgency brought to these efforts to address the threat of climate change. But for all of the reasons above, international climate negotiations will be an ongoing process, not a single task with a clear end-point. So, the bottom-line is that a sensible goal for the international negotiations in Cancun is progress on a sound foundation for meaningful long-term action, not some notion of immediate "success."...

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For more information on this publication: Please contact Harvard Project on Climate Agreements
For Academic Citation: Stavins, Robert. “Knowing Success if You See It.” Outreach, November 28, 2010.

The Author

Robert N. Stavins