After climate talks, scientists worry about enforcement
By Brian Winter, USA TODAY
COPENHAGEN — Ray Weiss looks at the chanting protesters, harried delegates and the 20,000 other people gathered here for a global warming summit and wonders: What's the fuss all about?
Weiss, a geochemist who studies atmospheric pollution at San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography, says the numbers at the core of the debate in Copenhagen are flawed.
Specifically, he says the cuts that countries including the USA are proposing in greenhouse gas emissions are difficult to measure and highly susceptible to manipulation by government officials and companies.
"I don't see the point in doing all this if the numbers are so far off," Weiss said, shaking his head as he watched conference attendees hurry by Thursday. "When you hear politicians tell you that they can measure these things, just because they passed a deal in Copenhagen, I think you should take that with a few grains of salt."
Most of the summit's attention has focused on exactly how much countries will commit to cutting emissions of gases that data suggest are causing the earth to warm. Yet some scientists, legal experts and delegates say the hardest part of any deal in Copenhagen will be measuring — and then enforcing — whatever politicians decide.
Those two issues are "the iceberg on which the entire conference could founder," says Peter Goldmark, a program director for the Environmental Defense Fund, a non-profit group.
The Obama administration has proposed a 17% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, compared with levels in 2005. Most European countries have offered more ambitious cuts, while China has pushed a target that would allow its carbon dioxide output to continue to grow with its economy, though at a slower pace.
In a study last year, Weiss and colleagues took air samples and found that levels of nitrogen trifluoride, an industrial gas 17,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide as an atmospheric warming agent, were four times above what industry estimates had suggested.
He says that monitoring equipment must be significantly upgraded around the world to prevent similar fudging of data if a deal is reached in Copenhagen.
Todd Stern, a lead negotiator for the U.S. delegation, says he's pushing for a system that, after Copenhagen, "allows countries to look at each other and get confidence that everybody is doing what they said they were doing."
However, governments in India and China — which is the world's biggest carbon emitter — have resisted draft proposals that would allow for international verification of data.
Bjorn Lomberg, a Danish economist, says the problems reflect a "failed strategy" in the last two decades of international environmental talks.
"Conferences like Copenhagen allow the politicians to go back home and say 'We've got a deal!' but then the targets are almost never kept," says Lomberg, who advocates more research and development of clean energy sources to solve environmental problems.
Even if governments sign a legally binding treaty — which Stern says could happen "soon" after Copenhagen — there is disagreement among countries about how to enforce any deal.
The Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 framework under which many countries (not including the USA) agreed to emissions cuts, contains no financial penalties for governments that fail to meet their goals.
The Obama administration is advocating a "sunshine policy" in which countries would not face serious consequences for non-compliance with emissions goals, says Stephen Porter, an attorney with the Center for International Environmental Law .
Stern declined comment when asked about the U.S. position on Thursday.
"There's no hammer, no nothing," Porter says. He says China would be unlikely to agree to such a condition, and the U.S. may not currently be in a position to pressure its biggest creditor for more concessions.
That may not be enough to please those in the Senate, which is deliberating an energy bill that would implement whatever emissions cuts Obama promises in Copenhagen. Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., is among those who say any deal must carry strong enforcement measures as a way to protect U.S. industry from its competitors overseas.
One possibility would be "border adjustments," a provision that would allow countries to impose tariffs or other penalties on trading partners who fail to meet their environmental promises, says Duncan Hollis, a Temple University law professor and former attorney for treaty affairs at the State Dept. However, Hollis says such a provision would likely be years away.
"From a lawyer's perspective, or even as a parent, for God's sake, unless you set a set of rules, your kids won't respect them," Porter says. "This summit is no different."