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There is near-unanimous agreement — the few stubborn holdouts will likely never be convinced — that climate change is real and the world must respond aggressively to it. The existing framework for action, the Kyoto Protocol, expires in 2012 and its effectiveness has been limited by the failure of key countries, notably the United States, to ratify the treaty, and its exclusion of other significant polluters from obligations to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

On Dec. 12, delegates from nearly 190 countries concluded two weeks of meetings to discuss a new framework to tackle climate change. They at least agreed that developed nations should continue to take on the duty of fulfilling goals for greenhouse-gas emissions cuts after 2012. But, sadly, real commitments to reduce such emissions were lacking. This is a distressing lack of progress since delegates reached virtually the same outcome at a meeting last year in Bali.

The failure to move forward reflects the difficulty of translating general agreement into concrete action. Accepting specific commitments will be costly and there is a temptation to let other countries pay the costs, especially when the world is facing a deep recession. There are always cases to be made for “some other country” to be forced to bear the burden, but this bargaining strategy only blocks an international deal since one country’s inaction encourages others to do the same.

The inclination to hold back has been reinforced by the coming change of administrations in the U.S. All are now waiting to see what President-elect Barack Obama will do, but he does not take office until next month, putting the process on hold. To his credit, Mr. Obama has called climate change “a matter of urgency” and promised to seek legislation to cut greenhouse-gas emissions sharply — a return to 1990 levels by 2020 and a further 80 percent cut by 2050 — and to increase U.S. participation in global initiatives.

That pledge was not enough to break the deadlock in Poznan. The result is that a draft treaty is unlikely to be ready next year as planned, but a “policy framework” should be in place and ready for ratification and should go into force in 2013. This is the bare minimum of what is acceptable and leaves considerable work for next year. Japan can and must be prepared to lead on this issue. A few other nations seem ready to join us in this vital effort.

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