John Ibbitson is a CIGI senior fellow, an award-winning writer and leading political journalist in Canada. Currently on a one-year leave from The Globe and Mail, John is researching, writing and speaking on Canadian foreign policy at CIGI while he works on a new book.
So here's how things are supposed to go: Representatives of nearly 200 governments will meet in Lima, Peru in December, where they will write the first draft of a new global agreement to fight climate change. Then world leaders will gather in Paris in December 2015 to turn that draft into a new, binding accord.
They'll fail. Little will be agreed to, and whatever is agreed to won't be implemented. The planet will go on warming.
But there might be another way.
For two decades, the United Nations has struggled to convince governments that they must act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. For two decades, the nations that mattered most have failed to act. The Kyoto Protocol of 1997 lies in ruins. Copenhagen in 2009 was a bust. Paris in 2015 will be a bust.
Global emissions increase every year and will continue to increase. People just aren't willing to lower their standard of living in order to reduce their carbon footprint under a plan enforced by the United Nations. They just aren't. You aren't.
So can nothing be done? Well actually there is something. Ignoring the United Nations altogether, the United States and China could agree to fight climate change together.
(Disclosure: Although I take full responsibility for the observations contained in this column, they are drawn from sessions and discussions at two October conferences: one in Ottawa; the other in Busan, South Korea. Both were co-sponsored by the Centre for International Governance Innovation, and neither was open to the press. I attended in my capacity as a CIGI senior fellow, not as a journalist. Wiser minds than mine informed this column.)
China is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, followed by the United States. Together, they account for 35 per cent of global emissions. The US is actually starting to bend the curve, thanks to the conversion of coal-fired generating stations to natural gas. China is actively working to improve air quality, because its cities are becoming unlivable.
A bilateral agreement to reduce the Sino-American carbon footprint might lead to something practical enough and incremental enough that the agreement could clear the U.S. Congress, especially if it were part of a trade treaty.
Treating global warming as an economic issue rather than an environmental issue is crucial. You want to reduce emissions? Make them part of a free-trade deal.
Talks are already underway between China and the U.S., and something might get announced when President Barack Obama visits Beijing in November. But given the relations between the administration and Congress, it might take a Nixon-in-China president (i.e., a conservative Republican) to push anything meaningful through.
If something meaningful ever were pushed through, not only would the agreement target more than a third of the world's emissions, both countries could require any country that wants to trade with them to sign on to the new regime.
Canada, for example, would certainly accede to any global warming agreement that included its two largest trading partners. Just as regional trade agreements have replaced the failed Doha round of global trade talks, so too regional climate-change agreements could succeed where the United Nations talks have failed.
There are problems with this approach. For one, it leaves out India, the world's third largest emitter. But there's nothing that can be done about that. India is determined to industrialize, and that means cheap electrification, and that means coal.
And a G2 accord won't limit the increase in the planetary temperature to 2 degrees, the target established by the UN. Anyone who is tempted to disagree might want to read a report released last week by the Climate Analytics, a widely respected environmental group based in Berlin.
The report concludes that both countries could achieve carbon reduction levels consistent with 2 degrees of warming "if China and the USA were to both apply the most ambitious policy level found anywhere in the world."
Although the report draws no conclusions about the likelihood of such an outcome, you and I both know that the political will to endure such sacrifice exists in neither country.
No, the dream of 2 degrees is lost. All we can do now is try to keep the increase closer to 3 degrees than to 5 degrees. All we can do now is hope that the Americans and the Chinese are prepared to do something, anything to limit the damage.