In short, he says that the strategy of having a worldwide treaty where everybody abstractly promises reductions is not going to work. It's modelled after earlier succesful environmental treaties, where reductions were far cheaper and more targetted. So governments could reliably promise to make cuts when negotiating. But CO2 reduction is seriously expensive (and badly damaging to your economic status if others don't join you), it is unclear how expensive exactly, and there will be far more concentrated political backlash. So even enthusiast countries are extremely careful not to promise reductions they are not sure they can make, leading to a lowest-common-denominator treaty plus lots of non-binding statements about the importance of cuts.
Extract from the review:
The quest for a grand solution follows a three-step process. First, scientists determine how much warming is too much and draw a “red line.” Today, that line is typically presented as 2 degrees Celsius warming above pre-industrial levels, the official target of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the G-8. Second, they determine the level of emission reductions necessary to avoid the red line. Third, diplomats bring the world’s countries together to sign a collective treaty pledging to achieve those reductions.
This top-down strategy is seductive, which is why it’s been central to international climate negotiations since the signing of the Rio Declaration in 1992. But as a practical matter, it’s not working. There have been summits, dialogues, symposia, and great, gushing torrents of talk, but climate-warming emissions have continued their inexorable upward trajectory. Climate diplomacy has yielded “the illusion of action but not much impact on the underlying problem,” Victor writes.
The strategy fails because it is driven by persistent misunderstandings about how nation-states interact with the international community. First is what Victor calls the scientist’s myth, the idea that a clearer, stronger, louder scientific consensus about what level of warming is dangerous will change politics. But national leaders have overwhelming incentives to focus on their countries’ short-term welfare, not on global dangers. “Most of these line-drawing efforts,” he notes, “have very little real impact on policy.”
Second is the environmentalist’s myth that climate change is an “environmental problem,” best addressed by treaties establishing targets and timetables for the reduction of harmful emissions. That model has worked for other environmental problems, most notably the Montreal Protocol reducing ozone-damaging chemicals, but it is badly suited to climate change, which is better seen as a problem of economics, infrastructure, and innovation.
Finally, there’s the engineer’s myth, which holds that climate change will be easy to tackle because inventors will develop new technologies to lower the cost of reducing pollution. Thus the alluring appeal of technological “breakthroughs.” The engineer’s myth “obscures the wide array of factors that determine the rate at which new technologies actually enter into service,” Victor says. Those factors include research and development, early-stage financing, and market barriers and opportunities.
All these myths push strategy toward broad treaties built around pollution targets and timetables. If that strategy cannot succeed, what strategy can? It begins, Victor argues, “by slowing down and refocusing on fundamentals,” namely national interests and capabilities.
Above all, he says, climate campaigners must abandon their scientism and take emission-reduction targets off center stage. National leaders cannot credibly promise particular emission levels in the short- to midterm. Emissions are determined by too many forces outside governmental control, including fossil-fuel prices, trade, and the pace of economic growth. The focus on targets is an invitation to empty grandstanding and lowest-common-denominator agreements. What leaders can credibly promise are policies, and policies, not numerical targets, should be at the center of climate accords, Victor argues.
Policies of any ambition are best coordinated among a bounded group of participants. By requiring unanimous consent among 193 participating countries, the UNFCCC process effectively guarantees treaties that reflect the lowest bid of its least ambitious members. Yet there is no substantive reason to require the involvement of every single country. After all, the top dozen emitters (counting the European Union as a single emitter) account for 74 percent of global emissions from fossil fuels. To make the size of the negotiating table more tractable, Victor suggests a “carbon club” along the lines of the World Trade Organization. Members would “bid in” with policies geared to their own national circumstances and, crucially, add contingent offers predicated on action from other members. Within the club, those contingent offers and shared benefits would create a virtuous cycle. Meanwhile, the club would craft smart incentives to lure in new members. (The Clean Development Mechanism—Kyoto’s main way of offering “carrots” to developing countries for emission reductions—has proved largely ineffectual.)
Even if countries do begin moving forward, changes of the scale required are going to be more difficult, expensive, and protracted than most climate hawks believe, Victor warns. When economists model the costs of addressing climate change, they frequently assume market-based policies like a carbon tax that distribute costs in a fair and transparent way. But precisely because such policies are up-front about costs, they tend to be politically unpopular. “The basic logic of good economic design is fungibility and transparency,” Victor notes ruefully. “The basic logic of politics encourages the hiding and channeling of costs and benefits.” Politically powerful constituencies will organize to capture more than their share of benefits and avoid their share of the costs. That pushes politicians toward policies like direct regulation that impose higher net costs but hide those costs better and therefore elicit less blowback. “Political forces strongly favor policy choices that are exactly reverse the advice of expert economists,” Victor writes, thus the cost of tackling climate change is likely to be higher than economists project.