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Fen Osler Hampson and William Zartman

How to break the climate impasse Add to ...

We should not get our hopes up that the Copenhagen climate-change summit will produce anything resembling a legally binding agreement to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Though many say this is the world's last chance to make a deal, there are major divisions that stand in the way of a meaningful agreement.

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Although key developing countries, led by China, India and Brazil, have said they will cut their own carbon emissions, they are all marching to a different drummer in terms of baselines, specific reduction measures and whether targets should be legally binding. They also want rich nations to cut their emissions while providing major funding for technology transfer and adaptation to developing countries.

Although the United States has said it will cut its emissions to 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020, it remains to be seen whether Congress will agree to such a deal. In contrast, the European Union, which is playing a leading role at Copenhagen, plans to cut its emissions by 20 per cent from 1990 levels by 2020, or 30 per cent if other countries follow suit. In the wake of allegations that a key climate-change research unit at the University of East Anglia fudged data on global warming, Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil producer, has declared it opposes a new climate agreement.

Canada has adopted a wait-and-see approach: Let others act before we do.

What's to be done? As past efforts at multilateral diplomacy attest, there are creative ways to break negotiating deadlocks and impasses.

Form a coalition of the like-minded to take the lead. When the anti-personnel land-mines treaty process headed into a cul-de-sac, Canada invited those who wanted to sign a treaty to participate in a separate forum, the Ottawa Process, which quickly concluded an agreement under a tight deadline. This was a bold move, but it shamed many of the treaty holdouts to join the club or, at the very least, support its goals.

For those countries prepared to take decisive action to reduce their emissions, this is an option if Copenhagen flounders. But it would likely wreak havoc on world trade if those inside the coalition penalized polluters and trading partners who don't play by their rules. We would all pay a heavy price.

Take an incremental approach by scaling down ambitious targets to reduce emissions. Baby steps are sometimes a way to generate momentum and build political support before you do something big.

The problem is that many scientists say we need drastic reductions now to forestall disaster - a more modest, phased approach to reducing emissions simply will not work. That may be true, but right now there are precious few stepping stones to move forward. Politically and economically, this may be the better option.

Develop pragmatic rather than ideologically driven approaches to the problem. Ideology prevails on issues marked by high levels of uncertainty and risk because it simplifies the problem.

The discourse on climate change has been infused with conflicting "moral" and "nature myths" by champions and skeptics of global warming alike. In the long run, however, the success of negotiations will turn on the ability of negotiators and other interested parties to work pragmatically together on the basis of sound scientific principles. To address doubts fuelled by the Climategate scandal at East Anglia, we need a thorough, open, transparent and impartial review of the existing scientific evidence.

Work harder to develop effective compliance and verification mechanisms. There is still an enormous lack of trust among those sitting at the table in Copenhagen. Many countries fear that others will not honour their negotiated treaty commitments because of the difficulties of monitoring carbon emissions under a voluntary reporting system.

The World Trade Organization offers a good model for dealing with these problems via its disputes-settlement procedures and monitoring mechanisms for the review of trade policies. Like the WTO, a climate-change agreement will also need clear rules, effective monitoring and penalties for non-compliance.

Energize a coalition of business and environmental interests to work for imaginative solutions. Some businesses could benefit from carbon reductions. Others can create new benefits by developing alternative products and processes.

Major change occurs when advocacy and key interest groups come together in support. That is what produced the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer. It is probably too late to galvanize such a coalition now, and it would take real leadership to do it. Al Gore did not succeed because he made less of a pitch to the business interests than to environmentalists. Yet, ultimately, such a coalition will be necessary for any agreement.

The impasse at Copenhagen is not insurmountable. But it will take creativity and hard thinking outside the box of traditional multilateral diplomacy to break it.

The authors are steering group members of the Vienna-based International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis program on negotiation. Fen Osler Hampson is director of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. William Zartman is professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.

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