Optimists expected the Copenhagen climate conference to furnish a global climate treaty that would commit all major emitters, including the United States and China, to reductions. But, as many others had expected, the negotiations only produced the Copenhagen Accord, or vague guidelines for voluntary targets. And even these guidelines could not be officially adopted because a handful of developing countries opposed them.

The Copenhagen outcome has produced an intense debate on how to move forward. It is not clear at all whether major emitters are willing to commit to emissions reductions, and an April 2010 meeting in Bonn — the first official round of negotiations since Copenhagen — “wasn’t very encouraging,” said Elliot Diringer of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

An unfortunate feature of this debate is that while some commentators have made productive proposals for a political strategy to address the climate crisis, others have seized the opportunity to sow the seeds of confusion and actually undermine efforts to develop a credible political strategy.

Consider, for example, the Hartwell Paper published today by a team of academics and pundits led by Professor Gwyn Prins at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Curiously deemed “radical” by BBC, the report proposes that focus be shifted on collecting the low-hanging fruit, such as providing electricity to the poor and reducing other greenhouse gases than carbon. These efforts could be funded by carbon taxes in industrialized countries.

Yeah, that’s what the report actually says. Since agreeing on a climate treaty is difficult, politicians should enact carbon taxes. I must say that I have no idea why the immensely unpopular idea of carbon taxation that failed spectacularly in the European Community two decades ago, should somehow be politically pragmatic. Will the Congressmen and Senators willing to support a carbon tax please stand up!

Of course, the authors, who do not quantify the carbon tax, probably have in mind a negligibly small fee. But if the carbon tax is negligible, then it will not achieve any goals that could not be achieved otherwise. If providing electricity to almostĀ  two billion poor people was as easy as the authors argue, then surely it can be done without such a low carbon tax as to be politically acceptable?

The problem with this proposal, and many others, is that it does not address the core question of how we can build political support for ambitious emissions reductions and clean energy policies. One should certainly strive to provide electricity to the poor — a goal of immense intrinsic importance for development — and reduce greenhouse gases other than carbon, but none of this helps solve the core problem: how to create political support for a sustainable energy transition? In my view, any credible policy proposal should focus on this question and offer an effective political strategy that reflects the very real political constraints in key countries, notably the United States and China.

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