Climate Negotiations on the Eve of Cancún

Christina Figueres (photo: UNFCCC)

International negotiators and civil society will be descending on the Mexican resort town of Cancún later this month for the first major UN climate change conference since last year’s much-hyped get-together in Copenhagen.

The Copenhagen conference failed to produce a significant international agreement causing many to downplay expectations for the COP16 conference in Cancún.

Yesterday, the head UN climate chief, Christiana Figueres gave a press briefing previewing her expectations for the conference.

She declared that there is “optimism for the planet” and “optimism at the multilateral level” for the UNFCCC process.

One interesting point she made to justify her optimism was that many countries have adopted more ambitious domestic climate plans than their international positions reflect. When pressed for examples she cited China–which is continually criticized by the United States for not agreeing to a sufficiently transparent method for verifying emissions.

As far as actual accomplishments she expects to see in Cancún, she mentioned that there should be a resolution on what should be done with the Kyoto Protocol. This seems pretty ambitious. One of the main problems of the negotiations has been the two-track approach endorsed in Bali three years ago. The first commitment period under Kyoto is set to expire in 2012 and by all accounts it has been ineffective in dealing with the global climate problem. Much of this has to do with the fact that developing countries are exempt from mandated emissions cuts and the United States does not accept the protocol.

The US would certainly like to see the Kyoto negotiating track get scrapped, but China and India are steadfast in their insistence that Kyoto be the mechanism to reflect the “common but differentiated responsibilities” of different countries.

This will be a key point to watch during the negotiations. It is likely that the US and the EU are working to get other major developing countries like Mexico, for example, to show more flexibility on the future of Kyoto. How things proceed in the Kyoto negotiation stream (AWG-KP) will be a key element to follow as the negotiations transpire.

Beginning tomorrow in suburban Washington, the main US negotiator, Todd Stern, will be convening a meeting of the major economies. This group includes India, China, the European Union and other key players. Although the future of Kyoto will not likely be resolved, the delegates will be discussing ways to deal with international monitoring of emissions by taking up a proposal from India.

US Climate Envoy: Targets Still Good Without Congress

Global climate negotiators hunkered down in Bonn’s Hotel Maritim today in one of the last negotiating sessions before the major meeting this December in Cancun.

US Climate Envoy, Todd Stern (photo: Center for American Progress)

Last year’s negotiations in Copenhagen ended with a political agreement brokered by the United States that said the world should limit warming to 2 degrees centigrade from pre-industrial levels.  All governments that agreed with the sentiment were invited to submit their own domestic commitments by the end of last January.  Those numbers would then be used as the basis for negotiating a more permanent agreement.

Leaving aside the fact that when you do the math, the global commitments come up short in providing a strong chance at the 2 degree stabilization, with the Senate’s recent decision to stop work on climate legislation the US is in a difficult position to defend its own actions at Bonn and help move along the negotiation process.

Today, the European Union envoy said that they are unlikely to sign on to a continuation of the reductions mandated under the Kyoto agreement without the United States involved in some sort of framework.

Head US negotiator, Todd Stern, today said that the international community shouldn’t worry:  the US commitment stands.  The assumption of the Obama Administration is that they can accomplish significant reductions using regulatory mechanisms via the EPA and other  federal agencies.

This may be the case, but independent analysis indicates that even if the federal government and all of the states who have plans on the books for greenhouse gas reductions pursue the most aggressive actions, the US 2020 commitment will be unattainable in the absence of Congressional action.

It will be interesting to see global reaction to the US over the next week as the meetings progress in Bonn.  With Stern not backing down from an untenable position, it will give other countries an excuse to avoid their own action creating further stalemate in the effort to come to a global deal.

What Happens to Kyoto After 2012?

The UN climate change secretariat released an interesting legal note today laying out what will happen to the  major legally-binding, global treaty in place to address the problem of global warming pollution beginning in 2013.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, countries have agreed to a “first commitment period” whereby most of the developed economies pledge to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 2012.   After 2012, these countries are no longer bound by their commitments and, theoretically, can start emitting greenhouse gases  without regard to their global impact.

There were significant problems with Kyoto; namely, the emissions reductions targets are not adequate enough to stave off dramatic climatic change over the course of the next several decades and major emitters–like the United States, China, and India–are not currently covered by its provisions.

For the past several years, there have been two negotiating tracks going on to deal with Kyoto’ shortcomings.  On the one hand, those countries who have ratified Kyoto have been negotiating to improve the treaty.  But this track–the Ad-Hoc Working Group on Further Commitments for Annex I Parties Under the Kyoto Protocol–excludes the United States and (currently) doesn’t ask big emitters like India and China to engage in legally-binding reductions.

The other negotiating track–the Ad-Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action Under the Convention–does include the United States, China, India, and other major emitters.   The second track was established in 2007 with the thought that some type of successor agreement to Kyoto would be negotiated and that there would be a seamless transition from the Kyoto Protocol to a new legally-binding agreement.

The second track hasn’t produced much progress, so there is quite a bit of confusion as to what will happen after 2012.  Today’s note doesn’t lay out a very promising scenario.

Here are the highlights:

  • If a second commitment period (with new emissions reductions numbers) is going to begin on 1 January 2013, a final text laying out those obligations really has to be completed by the December meeting in Cancun.
  • Even if a text is agreed upon in December, it still needs to be informally accepted by three-fourths of the 143 countries which are party to the Protocol by 3 October 2012 and then ratified by domestic legislatures by the end of 2012.  This is an EXTREMELY accelerated timetable.
  • Parties could amend the Kyoto Protocol to make it easier for a second commitment period to go into force.  They could create an “opt-out” clause where it is assumed the country will accept the commitment period unless they notify the UN.  This might make it more politically viable for countries to sign on, but there still needs to be domestic buy-in before the treaty is legally-binding.
  • There could be a “provisional” amendment to the protocol with new commitments, but until it is legally ratified, it is essentially voluntary.
  • They could extend the first commitment period for a number of years.  One problem with this is that many countries have expressed a political (not legal) commitment to limit global warming to a 2 degree rise from pre-industrial levels by 2050.  Extending the first commitment emissions numbers won’t reach this goal.  It would also require an amendment to the treaty, which still poses problems with getting the requisite number of countries to ratify before 2013.

None of these options look particularly promising.  So what will happen in 2013?

  • Emissions reductions targets will no longer be required.
  • Countries will not have to submit reports to the UNFCCC on their emissions.
  • Countries will not have to maintain a registry for emissions offsets–a key point for developing countries which can use financing under the treaty for low-carbon developing projects.
  • Emissions trading markets could be disrupted

Essentially, you would have an entire architecture of emissions management–flawed as it is–fall apart.

This legal note was written to give negotiators guidance going into next month’s intersessional negotiations in Bonn.  My sense is that it is a pretty dire document–we’ll see if negotiators think so as well in a couple of weeks.

Dispatch From Bonn

Maritim Hotel, Bonn, site of the UN Climate Talks

Today marks the beginning of the first major international climate talks since last December’s meeting in Copenhagen. That meeting, of course, ended in a storm of controversy and uncertainty with the United States hailing its non-binding political declaration as a “breakthrough” and much of the rest of the world expressing disappointment that there was not a legally binding agreement to deal with the climate crisis.

The United States has always maintained that the Copenhagen Accord is a first step on the way (perhaps) to a legal agreement, but as the weeks proceed to the next major meeting scheduled for December in Cancun, there seems to be little movement.

In Bonn, the parties will be taking up an actual negotiating text that is supposed to serve as the basis for an agreement.  However, the text does not come very close to resolving the key issues around the acceptable global temperature rise, greenhouse gas emissions reduction levels, which parties should reduce emissions, and the time line for reductions.

Additionally, the negotiations are still proceeding on two separate tracks–one involving the parties to the Kyoto Protocol (which excludes the US) that is trying to figure out how that agreement will function after the first phase of its implementation finishes in 2012 and another on “long term cooperative action” which includes the major emitters.

Fundamentally, the negotiations are at much the same stage as they were last year at this point.  Given the fact that all of the major issues are still outstanding, it is unclear what sort of progress will be made in the next two weeks in Bonn.

Logistics for Cancun Climate Negotiations: Another Copenhagen?

Moon Palace Resort, Cancun, photo: Thomas J. Hartnett

Last year’s climate negotiations in Copenhagen left much to be desired.  Instead of  a comprehensive global deal with a legally-binding treaty, we saw a voluntary political agreement with weak mitigation targets.   For those who attended the negotiations, simply participating as an observer, delegate, or journalist was equally frustrating.   The venue–Copenhagen’s Bella Center–did not have the capacity to accommodate the 40,000+ attendees; and the management of the crowds was not done with much efficiency.  Many observers and media had to wait hours in the frigid Danish cold for their accreditation and subsequent access to the venue.

For the last four days of the two-week negotiations, civil society was essentially blocked from the venue, making it difficult for indigenous groups, environmental NGOs, and others to monitor and influence the talks.

As a response, civil society groups waged protests which were quelled by heavy-handed Danish police.  Both the Danish government and the UNFCCC endured criticism for the chaos that ensued and pledged to make participation smoother at the next big round of negotiations taking place in Cancun this December.

The  Mexican government recently launched the website for the conference and it is beginning to provide a glimpse of how the negotiations will be managed.

It looks as if there will be two venues: the exclusive Moon Palace Resort will hold the actual negotiations while a brand new conference center, “Cancún Messe,” will accommodate the side events and exhibitions .  The implication of this arrangement is that access to the major negotiators and decision makers can easily be restricted.  Unlike the Bella Center, which was relatively accessible via rail, Moon Palace is isolated and situated behind a bunker of golf courses, making it even easier to seal off.

This is clearly going to frustrate many civil society groups.  One of the amazing things about these UN meetings is the relative accessibility civil society has to negotiators.  Many of the country delegations meet with NGOs throughout the negotiations to hear their concerns and to provide updates about how discussions are proceeding.  In Copenhagen, once inside the Bella Center, you could basically roam freely throughout the complex as an observer, sitting in on open negotiations, visiting  countries’ temporary offices, meeting negotiators in the hallway, etc…In fact there is even one NGO that shadows negotiators to inject the process with a degree of transparency.

With two separated sites these types of interactions will be difficult to pull off.  The unfortunate result will be a lessening of transparency and public understanding of a complex and crucial political process.

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.

US Submits Copenhagen Accord Target

After I wrote my earlier post on countries that submitted their emissions targets under the Copenhagen Accord, I visited the tally sheet maintained by the US Climate Action Network and noticed that they had a copy of the official US letter.

Dated today, the letter commits the US to a 17% reduction in greenhouse gases from 2005 levels by 2020 “in conformity with anticipated US energy and climate legislation, recognizing that the final target will be reported to the Secretariat in light of enacted legislation.”

There was also no mention of the Copenhagen Accord fitting into a legal process or treaty-building exercise.

The letter does say that the US expects other countries to meet the 31 January deadline for reporting their emissions under the Accord, contradicting Yvo de Boer’s description of Sunday as a “soft ” deadline.

The US response is not a surprise.  The Obama Administration gives itself an “out” if Congress fails to pass legislation or passes a climate bill with a weaker target.

Failure to mention steps beyond the Accord suggests to me that the US is not enthusiastic about the viability of the UN process.  But the reiteration of the 31 January deadline means that the US doesn’t want other countries to delay and that they want to be able to point to positive steps towards addressing global climate change.

Like I said, none of this is surprising; but it shows us how the battle lines are beginning to solidify and what to expect in the way of points of contention as international negotiations continue over the next few months.

On the domestic front, assuming that major emitters (especially India and China) meet the deadline for reporting their targets under the Accord, the Obama Administration will surely use this progress to pressure the Senate into passing an energy bill.

Although Obama didn’t utter the words “cap and trade” during his state of the union speech last night, he did hit the “clean energy/jobs” angle pretty heavy.  Large emitter endorsement of the Accord will likely help the Administration in moving climate and energy legislation.

Countries Begin Offering Copenhagen Accord Targets

With Sunday’s deadline fast approaching for countries to officially offer their emissions reductions targets under the Copenhagen Accord, we are starting to get a glimpse into how the parties to the UN climate convention are interpreting the rather vague document.

The Accord was a deal brokered in the final minutes of last month’s Copenhagen conference by the leaders of the major emitters.  It was nearly derailed in the formal session at Copenhagen.  The compromise which was hashed out at that session was not a full-fledged endorsement, but merely a reflection that the Copenhagen Accord was “noted” by signatories to the UN climate treaty.

I won’t get into the arcana of UN climate decision-making, but the significance of “noting” the decision has been unclear.  Is it a “legal” document?  Are countries under some obligation to meet its dictates?

Underscoring the uncertainty of the document, the head of the UN climate secretariat, Yvo de Boer, had to send out a letter to parties stressing that the Copenhagen Accord does “not have any legal standing in the UNFCCC process.”

Therefore, it will be interesting to see how countries themselves interpret the Accord in order to get a sense for its significance.

Meeting the Sunday deadline for submitting emissions reductions targets to the UN is one way to gauge the seriousness of countries.  Last week, de Boer called the 31 Jan. deadline “soft,” raising concern that it will be ignored.

As far as I can tell, the major emitters (aside from South Korea) have not yet presented their commitments to the UN.

What is interesting though, is that some of the smaller countries–e.g. Marshall Islands, Singapore, Samoa, Bangladesh –are insisting that the Copenhagen Accord be a step on the path towards a legally binding treaty.  We are seeing this in their pre-Jaunuary 31 communications.

Even a major emitter like the United States ostensibly wants a legally binding treaty.  But how this plays out within the context of the existing UN framework is extremely uncertain.

One thing that has never been resolved–although it was supposed to have been dealt with in Copenhagen–is the future of the Kyoto Protocol.  Fast-growing developing countries like  China and India have been reluctant to give up on Kyoto since its architecture does not obligate them to reduce emissions.

The key advantage of the Copenhagen Accord is that it does ask these emergent economies to plan for some commitment to reductions from business-as-usual levels.   Earlier this week the BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India & China) released a statement indicating that they want the Kyoto discussions to continue, while simultaneously expressing their interest in signing on to the Copenhagen Accord.

At some point a different architecture is going to have to be developed.  Kyoto is binding (for those who have ratified it) but ineffective.  Copenhagen is voluntary, but it is still too early to judge its effectiveness.  Thus, these early communications from countries could be key in determining the ultimate efficacy of the Copenhagen Accord.

If we see a large number of smaller, developing countries highlighting in their communications that the Copenhagen Accord is part of a process leading to a legally-binding treaty, one way of interpreting it would be that these countries are seeking to maintain the Kyoto architecture since Kyoto is the main legal expression currently in force.

It will be interesting to see how some of the larger emitters respond.  For instance, it is not clear whether South Korea mentioned anything about their commitments being part of the effort to forge a treaty.

If you get key countries like the US, Mexico, Indonesia, the EU, Japan, excluding mention of a treaty in their communications, it may not bode well for the UN negotiations later this year in Mexico.

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.