How to Make a Climate Deal

Delegates and experts at this year's annual UN climate negotiations want to know whether Barack Obama can deliver on his ambitious plans to slash greenhouse gas emissions at home. But they also want to know how he'll engage the world. What does he want from China and India? What is he willing to give them in return? What are his goals for a new UN treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol? Vague promises to play nice won't do -- negotiations will go nowhere without a clear U.S. agenda. It's not apparent, though, that the Obama team knows yet what it wants to do.

The report of a task force I recently directed -- Confronting Climate Change: A Strategy for U.S. Foreign Policy -- lays out a plan that the President-elect would be smart to follow. The task force was chaired by two former governors and brought together twenty nine leaders with backgrounds in business, government, labor, and academia, including several who will play key roles in a new Obama administration. We called on the President to leverage ambitious action at home to advance a broad foreign policy agenda, including a five-point strategy for UN climate negotiations:

Get agreement on a global goal. A new treaty needs to be grounded by the initial goal of cutting global emissions in half by mid-century. This will need to be periodically revisited in light of new experience and scientific evidence.

Be willing to commit to specific near-term emissions cuts. This is something all advanced industrial countries, like the UK, Germany, and Japan, must do. The commitments will be different for each country, but they should all should be strict and binding.

Seek commitments to specific actions from major developing countries. Don't ask countries like China for emissions caps -- their economies are extremely unpredictable, so any caps they accept are likely to be meaningless. But do ask for hard commitments to ambitious actions in areas that their governments can control, like programs and market reforms that promote energy efficiency, low-carbon power sources, and alternative fuels.

Revamp climate aid for developing countries. The Clean Development Mechanism is rife with problems -- it funds too many projects that aren't useful while missing big opportunities. It needs to be reformed so that it encourages investment in high-integrity carbon offsets in a small number of high-payoff areas. Rich countries should also contribute to a fund that would help cover the costs of moving to low-carbon technologies and of avoiding tropical deforestation.

Emphasise the importance of adaptation. Some climate change will be unavoidable. A new deal needs to create a framework for helping countries adapt to a changing climate, with special attention to those that are least developed.

These must be part of an all-or-nothing package. No commitments from big developing countries like China should mean no deal at all. That doesn't mean the United States shouldn't take ambitious action alone or that it should stop working with others -- both are essential no matter what deal we can get. But a UN deal is only worth signing if it includes big steps from every key country involved.

Getting this sort of deal won't be easy -- we'll need a smart backup plan. But a bad climate deal that gets defeated in the Senate would be even worse than no deal at all. The sooner the new administration lays out the contours of the agreement it wants, the better the odds that it will be able to deliver.