Skip to main content

Quicker fix for climate change

By Tseming Yang, Special to CNN
December 26, 2012 -- Updated 1445 GMT (2245 HKT)
Lake Cachet II in Aysen, Chilean Patagonia, disappeared because of rising temperatures driven by climate change, experts say.
Lake Cachet II in Aysen, Chilean Patagonia, disappeared because of rising temperatures driven by climate change, experts say.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tseming Yang: Result of Doha climate change conference less than desirable
  • Yang: It's time to abandon the myth that a consensus solution is the best approach
  • He says the 25 major carbon emitters should work out an agreement among themselves
  • Yang: Smaller, focused discussions may be better than large, U.N.-style gatherings

Editor's note: Tseming Yang, former deputy general counsel at the Environmental Protection Agency, is professor of law at Santa Clara University Law School.

(CNN) -- The Doha climate change conference this year was the most significant in nearly 20 years of gatherings under the U.N. Framework Convention process aimed at staving off future global warming disaster.

Since carbon dioxide emission limits agreed to under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol were to expire at the stroke of midnight on December 31, 2012, it was critical that the international community agreed to extend those obligations and to continue talks about future emission cuts.

But the outcome fell far short of what will be necessary to keep the world's average temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius in the foreseeable future.

Under the Doha arrangement, 17 of the 25 biggest carbon emitting countries (including China, the United States, Russia and India) did not commit to any legally binding emission limits. The countries that did agree to extend and deepen their Kyoto emission reductions, including the European Union, Australia and Eastern Europe, make up only about 15% of the world's emissions. That seems like a rather meager return on the investment of time and effort over the past years.

But there is one silver lining.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



The world's top 20 carbon emitters together make up about 77% of emission and account for about 4.3 billion people, which is about 62% of the global population. The remaining 170 or so countries account for just over 20% of emissions.

As often is the case, these negotiations over climate have come to symbolize epic David and Goliath struggles pitting poor developing countries against recalcitrant government officials from rich countries. Lobbying efforts, shaming tactics, and staging public demonstrations have been the slingshots of choice. One result is that more people are paying attention to environmental issues.

Nonetheless, it is time to abandon the myth that a consensus solution is necessarily the best approach. The unfortunate reality is that little can get done right now. It's like having hundreds of cooks with hundreds of different recipes attempting to prepare one meal in the same small kitchen. After two decades of hard work, it is time to consider reducing the number of cooks.

Photographer captures glacial retreat
Michael Moore: 'We're in big trouble'
Sandy a taste of things to come

A better alternative to a United Nations-style conference would be for the 25 major emitters to come to an agreement just among themselves about their mutual commitments to deal with climate change effectively.

In other words, get the 25 cooks to work together on the main meal. The hundreds of other cooks ought to step out of the kitchen.

Some smaller, focused discussions have already started, such as in the Major Economies Forum. Imagine what kind of deals on cutting emissions would be possible just among China, India and the United States -- the top three emitters in the world respectively. Imagine a deal involving emission sources in China, which has some of the world's most polluting coal-fired power plants, and California, which is on a course to become one of the most stringently controlled states in carbon emissions.

Of course, there are no guarantees for success. But discussions within such a smaller group would allow government leaders to confront the realities of climate change and engage in direct horse-trading without the static of thousands of other voices desiring to load their issues into the deal.

Let's face it -- we are way beyond the time for finding an ideal solution. Every year the world waits to take further concrete steps to cut emissions, the atmosphere will be loaded with millions of tons more carbon dioxide that will stay for a century. And the job of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius will be more out of reach.

At the best, gatherings like the one in Doha dangle a tantalizing mirage of achieving a sustainable future. At the worst, they give cover to governments that would rather avoid the hard choices they ultimately will have to make.

After one more expensive and time-consuming round of talks, it's time to be honest with what can really be accomplished in these U.N.-style gatherings.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Tseming Yang.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1229 GMT (2029 HKT)
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1737 GMT (0137 HKT)
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1256 GMT (2056 HKT)
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1708 GMT (0108 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1825 GMT (0225 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT