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After Copenhagen: five solutions to help melt the global trust problem

The US wants reassurance on verfication and China wants protection from interference. These aren’t incompatible.

By Seth Freeman / December 23, 2009

New York, N.Y.

Near the close of Copenhagen on Dec. 18, climate change negotiators were stuck: China promised CO2 cuts. America demanded proof. China refused. “No transparency? No deal,” said the US. “Foreign intrusion? No deal,” said China. The talks almost froze as the world warmed. Ultimately, both agreed to submit to monitoring – but the promises they made were modest. Not the most hopeful solution.

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There are better ways to solve the chilling conflict over transparency.

The US and China are both defending serious interests: The West needs to be sure that each country involved will make good on its word; China presumably needs to protect itself from external interference. (Internal politics, a sad history of Western mistreatment, and cultural discomfort with controls may deepen that feeling.)

The US wants reassurance, China wants autonomy and respect. These concerns aren’t incompatible. The following five solutions can help melt the lack of trust problem.

Nonintrusive monitoring

Make compliance (or breach of agreement) obvious from the outside. Your neighbor may not want you to come inside and look around to see how much wood he burns, but it may be easy for you to watch his chimneys. This “make-it-obvious” principle helped earlier treaty negotiators reduce oil spills on the high seas. Instead of banning hard-to-spot mid-ocean misconduct, they required ships to have antispill features easily observable from the dock.

How could this idea help after Copenhagen? Instead of trying to measure a country’s CO2 levels where inspectors are unwelcome, nations could use proxies that require less internal intrusion and are easy to measure remotely – from space, from weather observatories, from marine tests.

Focus on results, not behavior

The international community could rely less on verifying behavior and more on verifying results. It’s the difference between asking your neighbor to replace his wood stove with an electric model, and asking your neighbor to simply cut chimney smoke. Setting result requirements feels less controlling, gives greater latitude, creates less resentment, and potentially produces the same outcome anyway.