Prospects for a Global Climate Deal in 2010 Not Looking Good

Photo of Jairam Ramesh by Matthew McDermott

The Chinese government hosted the “International Cooperative Conference on Green Economy and Climate Change” this weekend in Beijing. It brought together environment ministers and climate negotiators to discuss the way forward in global climate policy.

The press accounts suggest very little movement towards a comprehensive climate agreement. The lead Chinese negotiator, Xie Zhenhua, reiterated the concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities.”  This, of course, is the idea that the developed countries which benefited from decades of carbon-intensive growth should take the lead in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.

Much of the press from the conference centers around comments made by the Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh who admitted that discussions have essentially reached a “dead end” since the US and China won’t agree to binding emissions cuts.  He was joined in his skepticism by Danish environment minister Connie Hedegaard who said an agreement at COP16 in Mexico was not probable.

Most interesting to those following the climate negotiations were descriptions of back-door negotiations at least year’s Copenhagen conference provided by Ramesh.  Last week, Der Spiegel released a leaked audio recording of a meeting on 18 December involving Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, Nicholas Sarkozy, Manmohan Singh, Gordon Brown, and the Chinese deputy foreign minister, He Yafei.  The audio depicts frustration from the European leaders about the lack of progress in the negotiations and culminated in Obama indicating that talks outside the UN process could be more fruitful.

The Spiegel audio ends with the Chinese asking for the meeting to be suspended.  At that point the leaders of China, India, South Africa, and Brzail convened in a different room to strategize.  Although not invited, Obama crashed the meeting to demand a deal get hashed out.  The resultant document was the Copenhagen Accord.

Ramesh recounts that Xie Zhenhua was banging his hand on the table and talking angrily in Chinese.  US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton apparently asked what he was saying and Obama deadpanned: “he’s congratulating us.”

If Ramesh’s account is correct, it shows that there is a great deal of distance between the US and China and there is little to suggest that the fundamental disagreements have been dealt with in five months since Copenhagen.

Official negotiations start up again in June.  It is likely that we will see a continued stalemate.

Key Developing Country Environment Ministers Meet in India

Environment ministers from the BASIC countries–Brazil, South Africa, India, China–met in New Delhi over the weekend to coordinate their responses to international climate change negotiations in advance of the 31 January deadline for parties to communicate their emissions reductions strategies to the UNFCCC.

The meeting ended with a joint statement that reasserts their support for both the UN process and the Copenhagen Accord which has a tenuous and uncertain relationship to the global climate regime.  The countries call on the Prime Minister of Denmark to convene five meetings leading up to the big, COP 16, meeting in Mexico.   But they also indicated their intentions to submit emissions reductions targets by Sunday’s deadline.

Perhaps more significantly was their emphasis on the Accord’s immediate $10bn annual pledge for adaptation in developing countries.  In news reports several of the environment ministers pointed to that pledge as a test of developed countries’ seriousness.

On related note, the Guardian reports today that the United Kingdom is contemplating reallocating money from existing overseas aid budgets to finance climate change adaptation.  This, of course, is objectionable to developing countries who insist that climate assistance should be above and beyond existing aid.

Things aren’t much better in the United States where the climate envoy Jonathan Pershing said yesterday that the government is “currently looking at the financing in the budget” suggesting that the “fast track” funding is far from immanent.

Climate Outlook 2010

It has been a month since the UN summit in Copenhagen ended amidst discord and uncertainty about the state of global climate policy.  The dust has settled somewhat and we’ve had some time to reflect.  So where do we stand at the beginning of 2010?

For the two years leading up to Copenhagen, the expectation was that the meeting would culminate with a solid framework for a new climate treaty based on the latest scientific evidence and poised to reform the shortcomings of the Kyoto Protocol.

Instead, the meeting ended with little substantive progress and a vague, last-minute, face-saving political document (the “Copenhagen Accord“) on which key countries appear to be relying for action in the coming year.

The Accord asks countries to submit their voluntary emissions reduction targets for the year 2020 by 31 January.  Unlike the Kyoto Protocol which only called on developed countries to reduce their emissions, the Copenhagen commitment will include reductions from “business as usual” by key developing countries.

On the issue of insuring that countries stick to their commitments and engage in measurable and verifiable reductions, the accord asks countries to develop domestic procedures, eschewing an international standard.

The accord also discusses a financial mechanism by which the rich countries responsible for atmospheric greenhouse gas buildup can help poorer countries meet the immediate challenges they face in adapting to a changing planet.

While the accord is commendable to the extent that it gets countries–including the emerging economies of India, China, and Brazil–to offer mid-term emissions reduction targets, its voluntary, non-binding nature makes the entire enterprise quite precarious.

Thus, as we move forward in 2010, there will be some key things on which to focus to see if adequate global solutions to the climate problem can be developed.

First, it will be key to see which countries formally sign on to the Copenhagen Accord, if they sign on by the 31 January deadline, and the nature of their commitments.  On Wednesday, UN climate chief, Yvo De Boer called the 31st a “soft deadline,” suggesting that some of the countries which pushed for the accord may not even be willing to meet this modest provision.  Last week in a speech in Washington, US negotiator Jonathan Pershing said countries were working on their commitments, including the US; but he gave no indication as to whether the US will meet the deadline.

Much of the holdup in the US brings us to the second key process to watch out for in 2010: the climate bill in Congress.  The Obama Administration has used the need to get a comprehensive climate bill through Congress as an excuse for its coyness in its failure to agree to bold emissions reductions targets.  The logic on the surface made sense: Kyoto has been ineffective because of US lack of participation and the lack of participation was due to Congressional rejection of the Clinton Administration’s targets which were presented to the international community without Congressional approval.

Obama’s representatives have said that they want to be able to stand by any numbers they put on the negotiating table.  However, at this point, passing ANY significant legislation through the US Senate is looking to be difficult.  Although Obama’s Democratic party has majorities in both houses of Congress, they don’t appear willing to exert any political muscle on potentially controversial legislation.  As I write this, the future of the year-long effort at health care reform appears in doubt solely because the Democrats lost one seat from their Senate majority.

If the Democrats aren’t willing to push through their health care bill, there is even less hope for climate legislation given the fact that there are key Democrats who are not excited about reducing emissions.  I’m not sure where this leaves us on the international side of the negotiations; but where ever it is, it is not a good place.

Thirdly, over the next few months we will begin to see where the UNFCCC fits into this uncertain environment.  In last week’s speech, Pershing was quite dismissive of the UN process.  He seemed to push the idea that the “major economies forum” might be where the action is in getting things done.  On the one hand this makes sense, given that we need key developing countries to make reductions from business-as-usual to stay within the global warming limits that the science demands.  However, the major economies forum leaves many important constituencies out of the process.  Small island nations, poor African nations, indigenous peoples, NGOs, and global civil society have no seat at this exclusive table–while the UNFCCC, with all its flaws, does offer a modicum of accessibility.

In his news conference yesterday, UN climate chief Yvo de Boer looked positively exhausted.  While he did his best to put a positive spin on the Copenhagen Accord, it was not convincing.  In the immediate weeks prior to Copenhagen, people were hoping at the very least that a specific timetable for a binding agreement would come out of the talks.  What actually emerged was a political agreement with a loose time line and voluntary targets.

Many of the key players behind the Copenhagen Accord–including President Obama–have said they view the accord as a step towards an agreement.  But the question that needs to be answered is what kind and size of step?

There are many other loose ends stemming from Copenhagen that need to be scrutinized–the whole financing scheme, for example.  But for now, these are just a few things we’ll be keeping our eye on over the next few months.

Copenhagen Summit Ends in Failure

The UN climate change talks in Copenhagen ended in a dramatic flurry of activity, diplomacy, and negotiation early Saturday.  The activity, however, did not translate into any significant momentum towards resolving the major impediments to a truly global response to the climate crisis.

The main takeaway from the talks was the “Copenhagen Accord,” [.pdf] a document largely negotiated by the large emitters, including the United States, China, India and Brazil.  The details of how the accord was negotiated are still sketchy, although some the initial reporting suggests that world leaders were actually going line-by-line through the text–an activity normally reserved for lower level diplomats.  Interestingly, it seemed as if China & India were savvy in keeping the EU and the US at bay.  Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao sent his underlings into meetings with Western leaders and apparently rejected both the EU offer of reducing its emissions by 30% by 2020 from 1990 levels and the general developed country commitment of an 80% reduction by 2050 under the questionable guise that by 2050 they will be considered “developed” and subject to reductions.

After the accord was endorsed late Friday night by the few countries engaged in its drafting, it needed to be presented to the larger “conference of the parties” to the UN climate treaty.  The floor debate began around 3:00am and was quite rancorous.  There was significant opposition from Latin American countries and small island nations who were cut out of the accord’s drafting.

Decisions under the climate treaty generally require consensus from all participating countries and at one point it seemed as if the conference would break up without considering the accord.  Apparently the head UK climate negotiator, Ed Miliband stepped in to defend the accord and the conference wound up “noting” the accord as opposed to “supporting” or “endorsing” it.

Such a tepid response sullies the accord’s significance within the context of the UN decision making framework.

So, what does the Copenhagen Accord say?

First, it is a political agreement, so there are no legal obligations on the part of signatories to follow its directives.

Second, the accord does say that “the increase in global temperature should be below 2 degrees Celsius.”  This is in keeping with other political proclamations over the past year by developed countries–in particular the G8.  However the use of the word “should”–rather than “shall”–doesn’t imply a significant level of commitment.

Third, instead of a timetable for a globally-binding treaty, the accord simply says that “we should cooperate in achieving the peaking of global and national emissions as soon as possible.”  Again, no “shall,” and more significantly, no mention in the accord of translating its framework into a legally-binding treaty–an outcome of Copenhagen that was hoped for by many before the talks began.

Fourthly, the accord asks both developed and developing countries to submit their own national emissions targets by 31 January 2010 to include in the accord.  Significantly, developing countries’ mitigation targets “will be subject to their domestic measurement, reporting, and verification” procedures.  This represents a strike against the US position, which had insisted throughout the talks that China and India–in particular–needed to be subject to international “MRV” procedures.  The accord does say, however, that if a developing country is receiving international financing for a specific mitigation action then that particular action needs to be subject to international monitoring.

Fifth, the accord does recognize the importance of forest conservation and endorses an “immediate establishment of a mechanism” to provide financing for stopping deforestation.

Sixth, the accord provides specific numbers for financing from developed countries to developing countries to deal with adaptation and mitigation.  The commitment is collective–meaning the specific breakdown of each country’s share has not been established–and will be $30 billion for three years.  By 2020, the number should rise to $100 billion per year.  These aggregate numbers are lower than amounts discussed before the conference and the specific mechanisms on how money will be allocated are unresolved.

The accord discusses setting up a “Copenhagen Green Climate Fund” that will monitor climate aid and should be accountable to the parties to the UN convention.  Although I’m not a lawyer, it is not clear to me what the significance of the parties’ lack of clear endorsement of the Copenhagen Accord might have on the governance of this fund.

Finally, the accord calls for its implementation to be completed by 2015 and a future “consideration of strengthening of the long-term goal referencing various matters presented by the science, including in relation to temperature rises of 1.5 degrees Celsius.”  This, obviously, was a rather torpid attempt to placate small island states and the growing body of scientists and activists who argue that the risks of accepting a 2 degree rise in global temperature are too great.

The summation of the Copenhagen Accord has been best expressed by Kim Carstensen of the World Wildlife Fund, who calls it “half-baked and unclear.”

It doesn’t really resolve anything, but brings up even more questions about how the problem of global climate change can be addressed.

Some of these questions include:  If the signatories to the declaration really want to keep the planet from warming 2 degrees, what are they going to do to see that goal realized? What will happen if/when, at the end of January after countries present their mitigation goals, it becomes apparent that the voluntary commitments will be insufficient to stave off harmful global warming?

The accord says that it should be fully implemented by 2015.  This is also the year that IPCC head Rajendra Pachauri said that global emissions need to peak in order to stay within the 2 degree warming threshold.  How can can emissions peak by 2015 given the leisurely timeline for implementation?

What is the future of the UN climate change convention?  If the Copenhagen Accord is the product of a backroom deal that fundamentally eclipses the Kyoto Protocol and the larger UNFCCC process, does this mean that the effort for a legally binding treaty is effectively over?  Regardless of what happens to the UNFCCC, how can differences in the US, EU, China and Indian positions be resolved if we are to live on a planet safe from the risks associated with escalated global temperatures?

Is the financing adequate to help the most distressed peoples of the world avoid catastrophe?  The numbers in the accord don’t seem to add up and are not nearly ambitious enough to deal with the crises many less developed countries are experiencing right now in their struggles to adapt to changing climatic conditions.

These questions were the ones that were supposed to have been resolved at Copenhagen.  The fact that nothing has been resolved is testament to a failure in leadership of many countries involved and especially those who pushed through the accord, namely the US, China, and India.

The next few weeks will be crucial.  Pressure from civil society on national leaders will be essential if actual progress can be made on mitigation.  If the numbers presented on 1 February don’t hold up to scrutiny, each of the signatories needs to be quite explicit on how the international community will actually address the reality of the science.

That leaves the last unresolved question which comes out Copenhagen, namely the future of civil society in pushing for a fair, binding, and ambitious deal.  The UNFCCC and Danish government’s failure to adequately accommodate civil society in Copenhagen leaves a bitter taste for many who had hopes for the talks.  Expelling civil society observers from the Bella Center for the last days of the conference undoubtedly made it easier for the major emitters to push through a “half-baked” accord.  It will be difficult, but the many civil society groups involved in climate policy will have to regroup and redouble their efforts to pressure national leaders to develop an actual deal.

Obama Addresses Climate Summit

Barack Obama gave a pretty stern speech to other leaders at the UN climate summit in Copenhagen a few minutes ago.

Unfortunately, he yielded no ground that would make a fair, ambitious, and binding deal forthcoming from the deliberations over the last two weeks.

The main sticking point for Obama is Chinese resistance to agree to any specific cuts that will be verifiable to an international body.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao preceded Obama and basically said that China will make cuts from business as usual, and that they should be taken at their word.

President Lula de Silva of Brazil was sandwiched in between Obama and Wen and was quite impassioned in expressing frustration about the little progress seen thus far.  As a way to show constructive action, Lula even indicated that Brazil would provide financial assistance to low income countries to develop in a low-carbon manner–a move unprecedented given Brazil’s position as a developing country itself.

These early speeches continue to dim the hope that anything substantive will come out of the negotiations

World Leaders Arrive in Copenhagen, Talks Continue Behind Closed Doors

As world leaders poured into Copenhagen, negotiations continued Thursday in an effort to salvage some type of agreement from the UN-sponsored climate talks.

No new negotiating drafts were officially released, although a leaked document from the UN Secretariat has been circulating amongst NGO observers suggests the current policies on the table will only limit global warming to 3 degrees centigrade from pre-industrial levels.

This, obviously, means that much more work needs to be done if the pledge by developed countries to limit global warming to 2 degrees is to be realized.

Given the non-public manner of the negotiations–nearly all NGO observers have been kicked out of the conference venue–it is difficult to ascertain precisely how the negotiations are developing.

Some countries, however, are beginning to show their cards on key issues. Most notably, yesterday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged that her country would contribute to the $100 billion/year aid fund for developing countries that was first introduced by Gordon Brown earlier this year.

Key issues about the actual amount each developing country should contribute and how the funds will be distributed remain unresolved.

Aside from the financing pledge, very little else was revealed yesterday. This is highly problematic since the consensus of observers suggests that something will have to be produced from these meetings given the fact that over 100 heads of state are now at the negotiations. Simply in order for world leaders to save face, some document will be produced. The real problem is that any document or agreement at this point is not likely to seriously address the pressing policy issues at hand.

The New York Times is reporting that upon arriving in Copenhagen, Obama immediately went into a closed door meeting with the leaders of major economies instead of giving his planned public address to all delegates. It will be interesting to see what comes out of this meeting and how–in particular–the smallest, poorest nations that are likely excluded from the backdoor meeting react. Nations like Tuvalu have been steadfast in pushing for transparency and a strong deal. If a weak deal emerges from behind closed doors, I would expect Tuvalu and other small island nations to continue their vigorous objections.

Demonstrations at UN Climate Talks As Copenhagen High-Level Meeting Begins

Prime Ministers, Presidents, and other leaders descended on Copenhagen’s Bella Center today to try and develop some sort of agreement as part of the UN-sponsored climate talks.

The high-level segment, however, began at the expense of the “low-level” delegates. Yesterday, despite knowing for months that upwards of 35,000 delegates were registered to attend the negotiations, the UN climate change secretariat instituted a reduced-access policy for NGO delegates. Most NGOs received one third of their original allocations for Tuesday and Wednesday, with NGOs essentially shut out of the conference for the final two days. People generally understand the enhanced security measures needed for when heads of state arrive, but the restrictions were the culmination of a week of rather poorly-organized logistics. Our group arrived on December 6th and had a relatively painless experience getting accredited. However, on Monday–before the restrictions were introduced–new registrants had to wait hours before getting their badges.

Although the reduced allocation seemed to function on Tuesday, for some reason the secretariat shut out ALL NGOs from entering the building beginning around noon. This was preceded by a selective “deactivation” of NGO badges from the environmental groups Avaaz and Friends of the Earth. This is really significant–not only because it is unjust to de-accredit specific groups and that the text of the treaty that serves as the basis of the talks specifically “encourage[s] the widest participation in this process,” but also because civil society groups tend to act as a supportive voice for many of the smaller countries.

Many small countries can’t afford to bring a huge staff and rely on NGOs to monitor action, manage media access, and explain their positions to the greater global public. Youth activists, especially, coordinate rapid response actions in the hall so all participants remember the justice issues at stake in the negotiations. When these groups are arbitrarily excluded from the process, time and resources are spent assailing the process instead of being used to help push for substantive measures to be included in a deal.

The culmination of these decisions is not pretty. After the UN restricted NGO access, activists and others marched to the Bella Center where they were met with police violence, which was filmed by CYDCopenhagen:

Targeting Buildings to Mitigate Emissions

Last Friday, Finland and the European Union hosted a side event at the United Nations climate talks on the building sector.  Finnish Minister of Housing, Jan Vapaavuori was a featured speaker and he made the point that globally, 40% of all energy is used by buildings and that their greenhouse gas emissions account for 30% of total GHGs.  He made the important point that–for developed countries, at least–the crucial issue is dealing with old buildings.

Photo of Jan Vapaavuori: Megapolis 2024
Photo of Jan Vapaavuori: Megapolis 2024

Vapaavuori’s fellow panelist, Sylvie Lemmet of the United Nations Environment Programme, pointed out that 95% of the 2050 building stock is already built in developed countries.

This is significant for cities that are trying to reduce their emissions since developed countries are the ones that need to make the greatest emissions cuts by 2050.  While it is relatively simple to regulate building efficiency prior to construction through the deployment of strong building ordinances, reaching already-constructed structures is a bit more challenging.

The other important point made by Vapaavuori is that building operation is more important than building construction in terms of emissions.  This is essential to think about from the policy perspective as  most urban policies–in the form of building codes or development credit–once again target new construction instead of renovation.

Much of the discussion focused on trying to figure out ways to create incentives for low-emission building renovation.  The problem now is that there is a significant up-front cost for high-efficiency upgrades.  While the upgrades pay for themselves in the long-run, consumers may not have access to the initial capital to invest in the upgraded equipment.  Furthermore, in highly mobile countries like the United States, homeowners may only be thinking of living in a house for a short time, making investment unwise.

It would be relatively easy to leverage the savings generated over the life of a high-efficiency building enhancement to finance the requisite up-front investment.  Some municipalities in California do this sort of thing where they establish a bond district that residents can tap into if they want to make an upgrade.  The municipality fronts the money and then property owners pay back the city at a realtively low interest rate and monthly cost over several decades.  If they sell the house, the new owner assumes the outstanding debt obligation.  Cities are already using these sorts of financing schemes to raise money for things like alley pavement and sidewalk construction.

A federal program providing the capital in this way would be a perfect clean energy stimulus scheme.

Draft Negotiation Text Released in Copenhagen Amid Protests

The negotiations here in Copenhagen have been proceeding rather slowly as fissures between the Alliance of Small Island States and the large developing countries have forced some delay in discussions.  The small island nation of Tuvalu has been pushing for a new, legally binding protocol which would keep global warming to a 1.5 degree level and keep the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere at 350ppm.  India and China are against even discussing the Tuvalu proposal given their satisfaction with the existing legal framework of the Kyoto Protocol, which does not require either country to restrict their emissions.

Copenhagen Police Follow Climate Marchers
Copenhagen Police Follow Climate Marchers

While the chair of the main Conference of the Parties has been trying to sort out a way to bridge this impasse, a perhaps more important draft text was released today [.pdf] by the chair of the Ad hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action [AWG-LCA].  The AWG-LCA is where the US has been concentrating its efforts towards coming up with a new global climate deal.   The US administration has said that they will not sign the Kyoto Protocol, so the general sentiment among Europe, Japan, Australia, and Canada is that some new framework has to be developed that China and India can support.

The draft text assumes the continuation of Kyoto and gives some numbers to consider next week as it pertains to mitigating emissions: acceptance of either 1.5 or 2 degrees of warming; reduction of global emissions by somewhere between 50-95 percent of 1990 levels by 2050; requiring developed countries to reduce GHGs by somewhere between 75-95 percent by 2050.

It also offers legally binding midterm mitigation targets for developed countries: between 25-45 percent from 1990 levels by 2020.  Developing countries are encouraged to reduce their emissions by 15-30 from business as usual levels by 2020.

Although some items like the institutional mechanism to funnel financing to the least developed countries for mitigation are unclear in the draft, it certainly seems like a fair text and is one which China and India will likely support.

The United States, Japan, the European Union, however, criticized the draft, with US negotiator Jonathan Pershing saying it “doesn’t work.”

Delegates will likely be working furiously in the next three days to get something on the table before ministers and heads of state descend on Copenhagen for the final days of the talks next week.

In the interim, thousands of people are marching in Copenhagen to put pressure on delegates in the Bella Center to conclude a deal.

US Interior Secretary Salazar Gives Mixed Signals on Federal Lands and Coal

Yesterday the US Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, gave a speech at the UN Climate Change conference in Copenhagen. He is part of a cavalcade of high-level administration officials coming to Copenhagen in advance of President Obama’s participation in the high-level segment of negotiations next week.

Salazar laid out the administration’s standard line on climate change, asserting that “the United States understands the danger of climate change poses for the world” and laid out the vision of his department has for facing this challenge.

US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar at COP15
US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar at COP15

The Interior Department is a key government agency in addressing the climate problem due to the large amount of land that falls under its purview. Much of that land is in the Southwestern US in areas that could be ripe for renewable energy projects using wind and solar.

The most curious part of his talk was when he discussed “carbon capture.” He rightly mentioned the large swaths of forest land that need to be preserved to act as a carbon sink for sequestration and announced the release of a study by the US Geologic Survey that contends “the U.S. hypothetically have the potential to store an additional 3-7 billion metric tons of carbon in forests, if agricultural lands were to be used for planting forests. This potential is equivalent to 2 to 4 years of America’s current CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels.”

But more troubling was his stance on the controversial practice of carbon capture and storage. This involves taking carbon emissions from a point source and injecting it into the ground to keep out of the atmosphere. This is largely an untested technology that hasn’t been implemented to any significant degree on a commercial scale. Issues like transporting the gassified CO2, and the permanence of its storage have not been adequately resolved. Coal companies, however, are counting on carbon capture and storage’s (CCS) viability to continue burning “clean coal” in a carbon-regulated environment.

Salazar was pushed by a questioner on the problems inherent in maintaining a coal-based energy policy given the problems with CCS. Salazar expressed confidence in the development of CCS technology and suggested that carbon could be stored on public lands. But this stance fails to look at the problems of coal extraction, which can disrupt landscapes and water quality when “mountaintop removal” techniques are used. Obama has been a consistent advocate of “clean coal” without, so Salazar’s position isn’t surprising. However, one would hope that the administration would take a more systematic analysis of CCS’ drawbacks.