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Why the Cancun Climate Talks Matter

by Michael Levi
November 29, 2010

Why the Cancun Climate Talks Matter

The sixteenth annual UN climate negotiations kick off today in Cancun. I’ve got a couple pieces out this morning looking at different aspects of the talks, in the Wall Street Journal and at Slate.

My piece in the Journal is summed up pretty well in its first couple sentences:

“As the United Nations climate talks open today in Cancun, here’s my advice for Washington: Stop focusing on China. If fact, I’d go a step beyond that, and suggest the U.S. focus on everyone but China—and in particular China’s partners in the Basic climate-negotiating bloc: India, South Africa and Brazil. Indeed, that may be the best way to move Beijing.”

Readers of this blog may be familiar with parts of this argument. I also talk about how the U.S. should approach Europe; if I’d have had more space, I’d have also written about how the U.S. should deal with Mexico and the G-77. But the bottom line is that if the U.S. wants support for its strategy, it needs to earn it; it can’t simply focus on China and expect others to back it up.

Over at Slate, I make a broader case for why the Cancun climate talks matter. It’s not that meaningful progress is likely – far from it. Rather, what matters is that Cancun could be a significant setback if it isn’t handled right. The reality is that even those of us who don’t love the UN talks are stuck with them, and we need to make the best of a bad situation. Here’s my basic argument:

“Reporters, opinionators, and analysts are right to have limited hopes for Cancun, but dangerously wrong if they think the meeting is unimportant. Last year’s talks produced the ‘Copenhagen Accord’, a political agreement that was roundly savaged. Yet the Accord is more valuable and important than most assume—and its future is at risk in Cancun. If negotiators let it die, as many privately wish, they will not get something closer to their ideal; they will get nothing.”

Of course, for some, “nothing” may in fact be the ideal. But anyone who thinks that a blowup in Cancun will lead smoothly to a nice G20 or MEF-focused climate process is kidding himself. It is far more likely to lead to a Kyoto-II-style arrangement where the United States is once again marginalized. Better to have a basic framework based on the Copenhagen Accord as the contribution that the UN process can make; then we can do other things primarily elsewhere.

There are many other interesting (and occasionally infuriating) pieces out there to kick off the talks. The New York Times published two on Sunday: a largely smart piece by David Victor and V. Ramanathan on cutting black carbon and ozone; and a somewhat confused piece by former EcoSecurities CEO Bruce Usher, who may be the only person who still thinks that a big U.S.-China climate deal might be the cards. The Journal, meanwhile, carries a more-interesting-than-usual essay from Ted Nordhaus and Michael Schellenberger. It’s all over the place, with some parts more convincing than others, but the part I’m drawn most to concerns the balance between international competition and cooperation on clean energy. (That’s something I’ve written quite a bit about recently.) Ted and Michael are right, I think, to emphasize that some protectionist actions may be necessary to get cleantech-supporting policies off the ground; they’re also right that, if those go too far, they’ll stifle innovation. But I’m skeptical of their solution, which mostly does away with IP and substitutes government contracts for the market in driving innovation.  That might make sense for a lot of early stage R&D (though I wouldn’t be as cavalier as them about IP), but it strikes me as fundamentally incompatible with the American economic system once you get into later stages of the innovation process. Regardless, I’m glad to see others writing about the challenges involved with making clean energy innovation work at a global scale; this is an area that’s ripe for more scholarship and debate.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Kaare Kvevik


    lets go right to the heart of the matter:

    -to solve the global energy/climate change problem including the national/global economy crisis, we need to find and adopt a source of energy to generate electricity that is:

    1.clean. 3.BASE-LOAD(24/7)
    4.scale-able power. and, 5.not site specific, which means literally anywhere on this planet. anywhere where needed, ..right?

    at this moment there are only 2 -two serious contenders or options that can full-fill all
    the above 5 points (there are reservations!)

    both options are currently under R&D.

    option number 1. SMRs uses a waste/commodity
    (U-238) to produce the heat needed to steam up a turbine that in turn drives the alternator. (edward teller).

    there are 686.500 metric tons of waste/DU in
    u.s. stockpiles to be shipped around to fuel thousands of SMRs for millenniums if life on
    earth survives that long with such a sneaky
    poison around. (half-life 4.5 b. yrs.)

    option number 2. do not need any commodity/
    fuel whatsoever -let alone poisonous- to produce the heat needed to do exactly the same thing as the option above, while the heat is all-ready there -ready-made!!! -on
    location 4 to 10 km down anywhere on this
    planet! it is called ‘hot dry rock’ or
    ‘engineered geothermal system’ (EGS)

    geo-politically there is a huge difference
    between the two options.

    option number 1.supports imperial interests.
    USA & russia sits on 1.5 million tons of
    depleted uranium that is planned to fuel thousands of SMRs called ‘traveling wave reactors’ to power the entire planet. this
    again leads to a ‘one world gov.’ because
    you can’t risk W.W.III with 20.000+ SMRs
    around! life on earth would be gone for ever!

    option number 2. is very different since the
    power -the heat -no matter where you are, is
    right beneath our feet, -4 to 10 km down.

    that means that any nation on the face of
    the earth has its own free energy beneath its own feet that is powerful, clean and economic! -that makes up a global community of free and independent nations who will resist a ‘orwellian-like’ ‘one world government’

    we are currently working on a large drilling
    device (like the Potter’s it’s based on
    thermal stress to spall the rock into tiny
    pieces using super heated water under high
    pressure), but we use electric power instead
    of gas to heat that water. we also use a
    (hydro)hydraulic drive to pressurize that
    water up to 50.000 psi, as well as to drive
    a counter rotating device at the tip to
    drill or grain those rather small parts of the rock that do not all-ways spall sufficiently despite of the ultra high
    energy super heated water jets of 50.000 psi
    (at 800 – 1.200 degree Celsius) the whole thing
    is connected to the surface by a reinforced
    cable or ‘hose’ if you like, that has neutral
    buoyancy when submerged in water as will all-
    ways be the case. it does not turn like a
    traditional drill string. the device itself
    counter rotates at the tip. the prototype
    drilling device will weigh 1.100 pounds aprox

    the project is under strong financial
    backing as we are now all convinced that this
    will be the renewable energy source of choice for the future that will have powerful base-load capability.

    the planet itself will become the ultimate
    GLOBAL powerhouse! a new global frontier of
    clean, abundant economic ‘non-commodity’ energy will inevitably start weather you
    like it or not. the dream of a nuclear
    renaissance will end.

    we do not forget that EGS as a system was
    developed in America, at Fenton Hill, NM.
    starting 1974 showing great promise.

    that’s 36 years ago.

    Kaare Kvevik.

  • Posted by Jeremy

    Competition and Collaboration on cleantech at the global scale is something I just started writing about roughly 6 months ago and it may end up forming a large part of my master’s thesis. I already have your report written with E.Economy and D.Segal on this.

    I’m wondering if there are others you are aware of that are following this and writing on it.


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