Scott Barrett on crafting a successful climate agreement in Copenhagen

“The biggest problem we’ve had in this long history of climate negotiations is a focus on targets and timetables – on aspirations, and not on the incentives that will drive behavior,” says Barrett.

Scott Barrett: Climate change is so profoundly important and complex. It is the challenge of our generation. It is a global challenge. Can the world learn to cooperate on this challenge?

Scott Barrett is an economist at Columbia University. He’s referring to the Copenhagen climate summit, scheduled to begin on December 7th. At the summit, world leaders will meet in Copenhagen to try to craft an international climate treaty. Barrett, an expert on such treaties, said that, to tackle global warming, nations need more than just target dates and timetables for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Scott Barrett: What would be a successful treaty would be if the agreement changed the way that countries behaved – if it stimulated a technological revolution, if it made it possible for greater reductions to be achieved for the future.

Barrett suggested looking at the lessons learned from an earlier international treaty. In 1987, the Montreal Protocol banned ozone-depleting chemicals, worldwide. But those same chemicals were later found to also be greenhouse gases. A study published by the National Academies found that banning ozone-depleting chemicals had the effect of cutting about 10 gigatons of CO2 each year. That’s roughly a third of yearly global emissions.

Scott Barrett: It is astonishing and one of the greatest successes of international cooperation in human history. And I think we could provide some leverage off the success and achieve even more.

Barrett said the Montreal Protocol worked so well because it addressed the problem of ozone chemical by chemical. He proposes that, in Copenhagen, agreements be made on individual greenhouse gases like CO2, and also on sectors such as energy and agriculture, and research and development.

Scott Barrett: As the world is focused on Copenhagen and how to craft an agreement on climate, focusing on targets and timetables and so on, almost without anyone noticing it, a different approach has succeeded much better. And I think that part of the lesson of that is that we can provide some leverage off of this success and achieve even more.

Dr. Barrett spoke more of why targets and timetables to reduce greenhouse gas emissions haven’t been successful in changing people’s behavior.

Scott Barrett: Targets and timetables themselves won’t do the job. We’ve had two decades of experience, in which countries have sincerely pledged to reduce their emissions to meet targets and timetables. And over and over again, these same countries fail to do this. And most recently we’ve seen this in the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. So just agreeing to pledge that you’re going to change behavior is not enough. You actually have to create incentives so that countries actually want to behave differently.

There are three basic elements needed, said Barrett, in an effective climate agreement.

Scott Barrett: You really need a climate agreement to do three things. The first thing is, you need it to encourage, promote, full participation by countries. Second thing is, you need the countries that are parties to the agreement to actually comply, to do what they pledged they would do. And finally, you need the obligations in the treaty to demand the countries change their behavior substantially. Now the focus on the current round of negotiations has been on the latter, it’s been on the setting of targets and timetables. It’s not been on the first two points. And that’s where I think the real problem is.

EarthSky asked Dr. Barrett whether the world really needs a climate agreement.

Scott Barrett: I’m glad you asked that question. The answer is a very loud, “yes.” Now the reason it’s a good question is that people are frustrated. We’ve been working at this for a very long time, and all the negotiations so far have produced so little fruit. So I understand why people are frustrated. But that frustration tells us that this is a colossal collective action problem. It doesn’t tell us that there is a better way to address the problem.

Dr. Barrett pointed to the connection between policy action on the ozone problem and on climate.

Scott Barrett: Most people who work in the climate area know an awful lot about climate, and they don’t necessarily know a lot about other global challenges and the ways in which we address them. And what we’re all desperate for, really, are some signs of real success. And the Montreal Protocol is a good source of inspiration. There are aspects of the problem of ozone depletion that are very similar to climate change. They’re both global problems. They’re both problems involving the atmosphere. And they both require world-wide action to be addressed in a fundamental way. So from those perspectives they are very similar problems, and then you start to probe more deeply and realize that they’re very different. And probably the best way to think about this is that the benefits of acting to address ozone depletion are huge, and they’re huge because ozone depletion would cause cancers.

Dr. Barrett spoke more about the study that found that the Montreal Protocol actually helped reduce global warming.

Scott Barrett: The ozone problem and the climate problem are interrelated in very complex ways. Ozone itself, in the stratosphere, is a greenhouse gas. The chemicals that deplete ozone in the stratosphere are greenhouse gases. And the chemicals that substitute for those ozone-destroying gases are greenhouse gases. So it’s a very complicated matter to work out the effect of addressing ozone depletion on climate change. But scientists have done the calculations, and their results are astonishing. It is astonishing and one of the greatest successes of international cooperation in human history.

The 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen could have lasting effects, said Barrett.

Scott Barrett: I think the lesson for Copenhagen, by all means, if you can and want to negotiate targets and timetables, do it. But in addition, negotiate specific agreements on specific sectors and gases that we know can be enforced more effectively than a comprehensive agreement on targets and timetables. These are not mutually exclusive proposals. You can do both. But if you only pursue the targets and timetables – that’s where almost 95 percent of the attention has been, if you only address that approach, we’re not going to address the problem of how do you address behavior. So, it’s great to have goals, but let’s also create the incentives for change to behavior.

Jorge Salazar