Opening Salvos as UN Climate Negotiations Slog On

Oxfam International activists stage an action in Durban

The 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change begins tomorrow in Durban, South Africa.

For several years now the world’s governments have been trying to develop a comprehensive treaty to address the climate problem and the shortcomings of the Kyoto Protocol.   Very little progress has been made.

There are many obstacles to be cleared.  One of the most intractable is the desire on the part of the United States to insure that developing countries take actions to reduce the growth of their emissions in such a way that they can be objectively verified.

For developing countries such as China and India, they respond that the United States is a large historic emitter and that they expect action from the developed world before they will consider any legal instrument inhibiting their own emission growth.

Over the past several weeks countries have been presenting draft papers of language that they would like to see in any agreement coming out of Durban.

Today some of these texts were released to the public.  The offerings from China, India, and Brazil on the one hand, and the United States, on the other, don’t give much hope in terms of bridging the political gaps between the developed world and the major emerging economies.

The United States offered a text on “long-term finance”–which refers to the ways in which rich countries will help developing countries advance their economies in a low-carbon manner.  Instead of focusing on how specific financing commitments will be raised and delivered, the text is much more concerned with the “transparency” issue.

The text offered by China, India and Brazil is short and to the point:

Acknowledging that the largest share of historical global emissions of greenhouse gases originated in Annex I Parties and that, owing to this historical responsibility in terms of their contribution to the average global temperature increase, Annex I Parties must take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof.

Also acknowledging that, according to the preamble of the Convention, social and economic development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of developing countries.

The work towards identifying a global goal for substantially reducing global greenhouse gas emissions as well as a timeframe for global peaking of emissions must be based on historical responsibility as referred above, bearing in mind the context of enhancing and achieving the full, effective and sustained
implementation of the Convention.

In essence, these three large and growing economies are saying that the developed countries are largely responsible for creating the problem and, hence, should be the first to exhibit behaviors that will help alleviate rising emissions levels.

Neither of these positions are surprising.  However, after four years of negotiations the fact that there is no evidence of spaces for agreement is troubling.

UN Climate Negotiator: “We do not belive conditions are ripe” for legal agreement in Durban

The last intersessional international climate negotiations before the major conference in Durban ended today in Panama with modest progress made on some issues like the structure of a financing mechanism to help poor countries cope with climate change.

US climate negiotiator Jonathan Pershing. photo: US Department of State

But major movement on what to do when the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period ends next year and how to bring large emitters like the United States and China into an agreement on long-term emissions reduction actions has remained elusive.

At his closing press conference, US lead negotiator, Jonathan Pershing, said that his country does “not believe conditions are ripe for a mandate in Durban for a legally binding agreement.  For our part we can only consider an agreement with equal legal force to all the major economies.”

This means that the US will not engage in anything legally binding without developing country emitters like China and India agreeing to binding reductions in the growth of their emissions as well.

Those emerging economic powers, however, are quite content with the Kyoto architecture which creates a two-tier system whereby the historic Western emitters are solely responsible for reductions.

At the closing plenary developing country after developing country argued for a continuation of Kyoto after its 2012 expiration.

Going into Durban, the expectations have got to be modest.  The negotiating text on what to do with Kyoto is an unwieldy 49 pages long with such divergent options that it seems like the accounts of the 2007 Bali conference could equally apply to the proceedings in Panama.

Pershing tried to be upbeat at his news conference today about the financing architecture that is taking form, but on the fundamental issue of reducing greenhouse gas emissions he observed:  “I don’t see any meeting of the minds of the issues.”

Climate Negotiations on the Eve of Durban

Climate negotiators from throughout the world are in Panama this week for the last negotiating session before December’s major Conference of the Parties (COP) meeting in Durban.

Delegates Arrive for Climate Talks in Panama (photo: adoptanegotiator)

Last year’s COP in Cancun ended on a cautiously optimistic note as the explicit gridlock and petulance that marked the 2009 Copenhagen summit was avoided and a series of “agreements” emerged that would put negotiations on a path forward towards a new global treaty.

So where are we on the eve of Durban? Has there been significant progress towards substantive agreements? Or did the non-committal nature of the Cancun Agreements merely  temporarily avoid the need for  confronting critical differences between countries?

The two negotiating tracks are still proceeding–one dealing with what happens when the Kyoto Protocol’s first emissions reductions commitment period ends next year (AWG-KP) and another dealing with “long term commitments” for countries, like the United States and China, that are not bound by Kyoto’s reduction pledges (AWG-LCA).

On the Kyoto side, several Kyoto-bound developed country emitters like Japan, Canada, and Russia have insisted that they will not sign on to another commitment period under the current situation.

Developing countries, led by China, are still insisting that the Kyoto must proceed with a second commitment period. This has led the European Union to say that they are willing to consider a second round of emissions reductions only if it is part of a “broader package.”

They argue that since EU emissions are around 11% of the global share, their unilateral actions will not have the impact needed to stave off dangerous climate change.

On the AWG-LCA track, there still doesn’t seem to be anything concrete to have emerged yet that bridges the concerns of the major developing countries and the United States.  One of the major features of the Cancun Agreements was that countries–developed and developing–would voluntarily list their emissions reduction strategies in a public fashion and that there should be some way that any emissions reductions could be independently verified.  Also related to this is the crucial issue of financial mechanisms for developing countries to help transition to a low-carbon economy.  Developing countries are critical of developed countries’ focus on how climate finance funding might operate to the exclusion of  a discussion of monetary commitments.

How these logjams will be cleared is difficult to ascertain at this point.  Over the past few days in Panama, it appears that there has been a flurry of documents and “conference room papers”  circulating where countries are staking out positions.

The Panama conference ends tomorrow, so we should have a sense of where things are headed going into Durban within the next 24 hours.  The European Union was hoping for a “roadmap” towards a legal agreement to be adopted in Durban.  That would surely be progress.

Barriers to High Speed Rail in the US

Photo of high speed rail in Taiwan by dhchen

The New York Times had an interesting article over the weekend on the state of Florida’s recent rejection of federal money to build a high speed rail line between Orlando and Tampa.

This comes on the heels of gubernatorial elections in Wisconsin and Ohio where anti-rail governors who were elected last year similarly rejected federal money.

In spite of the fact that there is strong public support for high speed rail and that rail and public transit have a positive economic impact, the development of this key infrastructure is stagnating.

What are the reasons for this stagnation–particularly when governments overseeing advanced and growing economies in Europe and Asia have less problems generating political consensus around this public investment?

My sense is that much of the problem can be attributed to two factors: 1) the lack of a real coherent national transportation policy and 2) the peculiar decision-making structure of our federalist system.

The second point is quite apparent given the outlandish power that single states have to negatively impact regional plans.   This stems from the fact that the federal government largely defers to states to determine their transportation plans.  In terms of capital improvements like high-speed rail,  states determine plans and federal money is allocated to the extent that projects conform to state plans.

This, of course, is reflective of the first point: the federal government does not have a proper “national plan” nor does it engage in the crucial decision making necessary to implement a serious national rail vision.

Sure, the USDOT develops national plans, but they are secondary to the states when it comes to rail.  In the words of the 2009 National Rail Plan [pdf], the legislative mandate for USDOT planning is “to develop the plan consistent with approved State plans” (23)–not vice versa.

This distinction is crucial.  How can you have a national infrastructure system which is the product of 50 bottom-up decisions.  We can see the impact this might have in a region like the Midwest, where states like Illinois and Minnesota will be negatively impacted by unilateral decisions made in Ohio and Wisconsin.

The feds could deal with this barrier, but it won’t be easy.  Congress would have to pass legislation restricting state autonomy–something that wouldn’t have much support in the current political climate in Washington.

Until this happens, however, high speed rail is likely to be stuck on a slow track.

CTA Contemplates Dramatic Changes for North Side Train Lines

The Chicago Transit Authority announced details last week regarding a modernization project for two of its major north side elevated train lines.  The lines at issue are the Red and Purple which serve the Loop, Lakeview, Uptown, Rogers Park and the suburban communities of Evanston and Wilmette.

Like most of Chicago’s elevated rail system, the Red and Purple lines are in dire need of modernization, upkeep, and expansion.  Determining exactly what should be done in the context of limited funds is going to be a challenge.

This month the CTA is presenting various modernization options for public comment.  Here is a thumbnail sketch of what is contained in the Notice of Intent document released last week.

Currently the Purple Line runs local from Wilmette through Evanston and then express to Belmont in Lakeview where it follows the Brown line stops to downtown.  The Purple Line only runs on the weekdays during the rush hours.

Purple and Red Lines Current Configuration

The Red Line is a local train that runs at all hours, seven days a week between Howard St. at the city’s northernmost boundary down to 95th Street on the city’s south side.

Taken together, the lines generate 128,000 trips on an average weekday and are responsible for about 20% of all CTA rail trips.

In addition to doing nothing, one option being considered is the “Basic Rehabilitation Alternative.”  This alternative keeps existing stations and service, but brings the system “into a minimal state of good repair.”  This option entails making a handful of stations ADA-compliant and doing minimal upgrades.

The second option is a “Basic Rehabilitation with Transfer Stations.” option.  This would follow the above model, but would add Wilson and Loyola as transfer stations for the Purple Line.  This would slow down the Purple line for Evanston commuters, but allow two more stops for riders in Uptown and Rogers Park.

Basic Rehab with Loyola and Wilson Transfer stationsThe third option is the “Modernization 4-Track Alternative.”  This option decreases the number of stations north of Belmont from 21 to 17.  You would still have the two new transfer stations, but the South Boulevard Purple Line station in Evanston would be eliminated as well as the Lawrence,  Thorndale, and Jarvis stations on the Red Line.

To compensate for the loss of stations, platforms would be extended and new entrances would be built in key stations and there could be “potential expanded hours of express service.”

Modernization 4-Track Alternative

The next option is the “Modernization 3-Track Alternative.”  This follows the station closures of the previous option, but instead of having the expanded express service you actually have a decrease in express service.  Currently the Purple Line operates both north and south during weekday rush hours between Belmont and Howard on two of the tracks while the Red Line operates local service on the other two tracks.  The rationale for switching to a three-track option is to improve stations and make them ADA compliant.  This requires widening platforms–something that can be done within the existing right-of-way if you remove one of the tracks.  The catch is that the express train will only run inbound in the morning and outbound in the afternoon.

People who commute from the city to Evanston would be negatively impacted by this change.

The final alternative is called the “Modernization 2-Track Alternative.”  Under this scenario, the existing above-ground Red Line would be transformed into a subway.   The train would go underground north of Belmont and emerge above ground at Loyola.  The elevated stops between Morse and Belmont would be eliminated and essentially be replaced by seven subway stations on the same streets as the “Modernization” options listed above.

It is unclear what would happen to the elevated section, but this option would eliminate ALL express trains.  Apparently this would be compensated somewhat by better track alignment in the new subway section.

Assessment:  First, these lines are in dire need of upgrades.  The CTA is still running a nineteenth-century transit system.  Dilapidated viaducts result in slow zones and many stations are not ADA-compliant and in dire need of makeovers.  This is largely due to decades of minimal investment.

That said, I’m generally unenthusiastic about removing transit stops.  In each of the areas where there are proposed stop eliminations many small businesses are located.  And the more stops you have, there is a higher propensity for people to use transit instead of driving.

It is true that the more stops you have on a train line can result in longer trips since the train stops more frequently.

One curious omission from the proposals is to revert back to the old Red Line configuration which used an A/B “skip stop” system.  This speeds up the Red Line by reducing the number of trains that stop at smaller stations.

Given the shaky economic environment, some of the options presented–like the subway –seem overly ambitious.

Trying to Salvage a Deal in Cancún: Eleventh Hour Negotiating Text Released

The document desk at Moon Palace

Updated 7:25pm

The UN climate change negotiations in Cancún were originally supposed to be over at 6pm CST. Instead of heading to the beach, bars, or nightclubs, delegates were treated with a new negotiating document at 5pm and the promise of all-night talks in an effort to finish the two-week session with a “positive outcome.”

This document is being poured over right now by delegates in advance of another stock-taking meeting at 11pm. What happens at that point is anyone’s guess.

But here are some highlights from my quick, first read of the document:

  • On the vision for long-term action, the document keeps the Copenhagen Accord goal of a 2° limit on global warming but also calls for a review beginning in 2013 and concluding in 2015 to see if the science calls for a safer goal of 1.5°.
  • Gas emissions should peak “as soon as possible.”  There is no specific date listed, but it calls for working “towards identifying a time frame for global peaking.”  Most economists argue the sooner we peak, the cheaper the adaptation costs.
  • On mitigation for developed countries, it asks developed countries to communicate their emissions goals to the Secretariat and leaves to the future the precise mechanisms for identifying how they will do this (e.g. the role of offsets, land use, etc…).
  • Significantly, the mitigation section makes no mention of Kyoto and has no specific numeric targets or a deadline for developed country mitigation actions!   The first emission is less problematic because of advances on the Kyoto track of negotiations while the latter makes the document extremely weak.  You really need to have SOME target if you are going to reach the 2 degree goal!
  • On mitigation for developing countries, the document calls for them to take “appropriate mitigation actions…aimed at achieving a deviation in emissions relative to ‘business as usual’ emissions in 2020.”  Like the developed countries, they will communicate their actions to the secretariat.  The implications of some of the language is hard to decipher, but in this section the document explicitly uses the worlds “voluntarily inform.”
  • On monitoring and verification (a big concern of the US): goes for domestic verification “in accordance to guidelines to be developed under the Convention”–whatever that means.  This is clearly an attempt to bridge the US and China dispute on monitoring and verification.  The latter sees international monitoring and verification as an infringement on its sovereignty.   Will it work?
  • On fast-start finance: it “notes” the Copenhagen accord commitment of $30 billion through 2012 and “invites” donor countries to submit information about their spending.
  • Decides to establish a Green Climate Fund with a board comprising 24 members with equal developing and developed country.  It “invites” the World Bank to be the fund’s interim trustee.  representation.
  • The AWG-LCA will continue to discuss legal options

I am sure there is more that I am missing, but on first glance it looks like this is a document meant to operationalize the Copenhagen Accord.  It keeps the 2 degree ambition, but fails to recognize that there is a gap in the Copenhagen commitments achieving that goal.  It asks all countries to reduce emissions or emissions growth, but has no strong mechanisms to insure countries keep their word.  And it doesn’t resolve the controversy over the future of the Kyoto Protocol.

Parties are scheduled to debate this text at around 11pm.  It should be a long night.

Update: The absence of the Kyoto language may be less of an issue, since Richard Klein tells me there has been an agreement on the other negotiating track to have a second commitment period for the protocol.  Everything is still tentative since both of these texts will still be debated later this evening.

Guns, Garbage and Gas: A Sampling of COP16 Side Events

Side Event at COP16 (photo: adoptanegotiator)

While most of my posts from Cancún have focused on the progress in the climate negotiations, that is only one element of the UN climate change conference. Each day there are dozens of side events where researchers and policymakers talk about specific responses to the climate crisis.

This afternoon as the high level ministers delivered their statements on the negotiations, I attended three side events.  These give you a flare for what one could expect to encounter in a typical day.

The first one was organized by the European Parliament and focused onj what the EU is doing on the policy front to encourage energy efficiency.  For many of the developed countries, a significant proportion of their emissions are the result of waste.

Recognizing that waste is one of the “low-hanging fruit,” that should be easy to eliminate with education and the right incentive structure, they have adopted some pretty simple and inexpensive policies to address this issue.  Ivo Belet talked about the new energy labeling program, where by the end of next year, many products will have to have written on their packaging their greenhouse gas content.  He discussed specifically a new labeling system for automobile tires, saying that tire performance is a strong determinant of fuel efficiency.  Give consumers the information, and they are more likely to make smart purchases.  Conincidentially, a group of Republican-led House members came out today against better auto fuel labeling in the US.  The EU is implementing a lot of simple and effective policies.  One wonders why policymakers in the US are incapable of learning from their European counterparts.

Later, I went to a side event sponsored by the government of Brazil.  Two researchers from the Institute of Applied Economic Research presented work estimating the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that could be mitigated from stronger recycling programs in the country.  They proposed a shift in the incentive system to give a better price for certain recyclables based on their total ecological worth, rather than their simple market price.

The last event I went to was sponsored by the United States Departement of State and involved three uniformed representatives from the Department of Defense.   The topic was the national security consequences of climate change–a topic that gets very little treatment in both the political and policy circles.

The Pentagon representatives portrayed themselves as fully engaged with the implications of climate change.  The bulk of the discussion by the presenters, however, was on adaptation.  Given the fact that many military bases–particularly naval–are situated in threatened environments, it makes sense that they would be concerned with the impacts of climate change.  They mentioned that climate change is given treatment in the Quadrennial Defense Review–a major departmental strategic document.

I found it interesting to hear these servicemen talk about the climate threat and to reflect on the disfunction in Congress on climate.  Many of the most anti-science members of Congress  like Inhofe or Fred Upton also purport to be “pro-military.”  I’m wondering how they resolve these incongruities!

Posturing Accelerates in the Waning Hours of Cancún

Officials Preside Over High-Level Segment (photo: UNFCCC)

The UN climate change talks are in their last 48 hours. Ministers are here in Cancún as the conference enters its “high level segment.”

In an ideal world, the previous week and a half of talks would have produced a document that the ministers could laud whilst waxing admiringly about the ultimate effectiveness of multilateralism.   However, as the past few years of talks attest, the ideal world doesn’t exist.

Skepticism emerged last week on the part of many small and poor developing countries who were concerned about secret negotiations and a repeat of Copenhagen where world leaders of a small number of countries flew in and essentially hijacked the talks.

In response, the Mexican president of the conference–Patricia Espinosa–went to great lengths to stress transparency and openness.  However, that appears to  not have been enough to quell concerns about backroom dealing.

Last night, Espinosa held a meeting with 50 ministers to try and bridge gaps.   The meeting came on the heels of reports that the Indian environment minister, Jairam Ramesh revealed that India would not be averse to accepting legally-binding emissions cuts.  The day before, China reiterated its position that it rejects this idea.  Some observers see this as a significant breaking of the strong alliance that the two countries forged through their deal-making with the US last year at Copenhagen.  Of course, a major provision of the Copenhagen Accord was that emission mitigation actions should be voluntary.

For the rest of today, ministers and the leaders who came to Cancún will continue to give their statements in the public portion of the meeting.  It is certain that behind the scenes talks are continuing and documents are being developed.

On the penultimate day of negotiations the positions are clear: the US wants to see a “balanced package of decisions” which links financing to the Global South with movement on a verifiable emissions reduction commitment on the part of large developing nations;  large parts of the developing world  want the continuation of the Kyoto system that binds developed countries to a new round of emissions cuts.

Will the gap be bridged by new compromise alliances? Or will the talks essentially end with a resounding thud?

Latest Negotiating Document Released in Cancún

Early this morning the chair of the key group negotiating a global climate agreement in Cancún released a vision for “Elements of an Outcome” from the deliberations of the past two weeks.

As might be expected, the document makes minimal progress on some of the key issues keeping countries from coming to an agreement.  On one level, the document could represent a step backward.   The chair’s stock-taking document, released on Saturday, included a vision for holding global warming to 2° centigrade.  This ambition is highly contested by many parties.  In today’s document the 2° number was ‘bracketed” (meaning there is disagreement) and joined by options for 1° and 1.5° warming.

On other key points, it is hard to know whether the new document is an advance, a stagnation, or something else entirely.   For example, the Saturday document called on the world to insure that emissions peaked “as soon as possible,” where as today’s document has that language bracketed and joined by a specific year for peaking (2015).  The science and economics tell us that an earlier peaking date is more advantageous than one far off in the future, so seeing the 2015 year in the text is positive.  On the other hand, the fact that it was inserted means that some parties are not satisfied with the vagueness of the earlier text suggesting  little movement towards some compromise.

On the mitigation actions to be taken by developed countries, the issues I described in my previous post have not been resolved.  The document continues to walk the line between the future of the Kyoto Protocol and a new agreement by incorporating language about continuing Kyoto emission obligations in the new document.  But the specifics about what the emissions reductions should be for developed countries are missing.

The same thing applies to the issue of developing country mitigation actions.  The US has been pushing China and India to submit their reductions to international scrutiny–something that those countries do not want to do.  Instead, they assert that they will develop their own domestic procedures.  This is not likely going to satisfy the US.

One advance in the new text are particular timelines for resolving the reporting and verification issue.  For both developing and developed countries, the new text gives parties a year to develop more specific guidelines on how to understand and compare mitigation actions between countries.

On the issue of developing countries receiving finance for the transition to low-carbon sustainable development, there are still significant unresolved issues.  The nature of the fund to be established to finance these activities is not clear.  Options in the text include having the World Bank run the fund, the UNFCCC, or have some new managing authority.

I haven’t had the chance to look really closely at the new text in comparison to Saturday’s, but the fact that it is actually longer and is ambiguous on so many key points suggests a quagmire at best.

High-Level Ministers Arrive in Cancún, Little Progress in Negotiations

Saturday's COP16 Plenary (photo:UNFCCC)

Delegates at the UN climate change conference in Cancún held “stock-taking” meetings and a key negotiating document was released over the weekend as high level ministers arrived for the final week of negotiations.

The memory of the last-minute deal in Copenhagen was clearly on the minds of many negotiators as the Mexican Minister overseeing the negotiations took the unusual step of scheduling an “informal stock-taking meeting” on Sunday, the only scheduled break in negotiations during the two-week period.

The document released on Saturday did little to resolve major issues related to long-term emissions mitigation and financing, which have plagued the talks for the last year.  One interesting insertion was language pertaining to the Kyoto Protocol.  Developing countries have been adamant about keeping the Kyoto distinction between the two, given the fact that it is a legally-binding instrument that requires emissions cuts by major emitters.

Options in the new document acknowledge the Kyoto framework for countries currently parties to the protocol, but also provides for mitigation actions from the US as well as from the large developing country emitters.

In an ideal world it could continue Kyoto, bring the US to accept Kyoto-like mitigations, and also put developing countries on the record for appropriate mitigation actions.  Early reports suggest this approach may satisfy China.

It is interesting to see this “Kyoto-+” approach emerge in the texts since a middle path between rejecting Kyoto’s second commitment period and starting over has been mentioned for at least the past two years.  It seems to be a testament to the glacial pace of international negotiations.