Taking Stock of Week One in Cancún

Cancún Messe (photo: Friends of the Earth)
Cancún Messe (photo: Friends of the Earth)

As is normal with the international climate negotiations, progress has been slow this first week in Cancún. With expections for a substantive agreement at a low point and major issues between developed and large developing countries still evident, it is perhaps to be expected that movement towards agreement would be elusive.

Although the breadth of issues where gaps exist is large, one major fissure that was exposed this week was the future of the Kyoto Protocol.  Japan’s announcement early in the week that it would not agree to a second commitment period for the Protocol is seen as a dramatic abandonment of the only global legal instrument in place to deal with the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions.  If Japan isn’t committed to the treaty negotiated on its own soil, then why should anyone else?

This position has generated animosity–particularly from China–who insists on second period. 

For the United States–which is not a party to Kyoto–the concern is that the dispute over Kyoto will derail any limited progress that has been made.  US negotiators have been unrelenting in their support for the Copenhagen Accord–the political document that emerged from last year’s talks.

Although it is unlikely that the voluntary commitments laid out in the accord will be sufficient enough to meet the accord’s target to limit global warming to 2 degrees, senior US negotiators have said that they would rather start with a set of ambitions that are agreed upon in theory and then strengthen them, instead of seeing talks fail.

In the background are revelations from the WikiLeaks cables documenting developed country duplicity in climate talks over the past two years.  Just as was the case last year, there are rumors of a “secret text” that will kill the Kyoto Protocol.

While that may or may not be the case, there is expected to be released today a more refined document based on the negotiations that have taken place over the past several days.  What is included or excluded from that text will  set the contours for next week’s discussions.

The Balancing Act in Cancún: Early Impressions of COP-16

Delegates in COP16 Plenary (photo: UNFCCC)

The United Nations climate change negotiations are underway in Cancún and the rhetoric from the major developed country parties is that they are searching for “a balanced package of decisions.” The top US negotiator, Todd Stern, used that term last week in a pre-conference press conference in Washington and Stern’s deputy on the ground in Cancún, Jonathan Pershing, deployed the similar language in a press conference on Monday.

So what does this mean?  A somewhat ominous article in the Guardian suggests that the US is adopting an “all or nothing” approach to the talks.   Essentially, the US is pushing large developing country polluters like China and India to submit to emissions cuts from business-as-usual that are internationally monitored and verifiable.  In the absence of this, the US will be less likely to support key developing country concerns, such as financing for climate adaptation and technology assistance.

One reflection of this tension can be seen in the proceedings of the AWG-LCA–the negotiating stream that is looking for an alternative to the Kyoto Protocol.   A negotiating text was prepared in August for this track, but at 70 pages, it is unwieldy and doesn’t resolve key issues on safe levels of global warming, who should mitigate emissions and by how much, and how emissions should be monitored and verified.

A shorter (33 page) text listing “possible elements of the outcome,” was prepared in the interim by the AWG-LCA chair.  It largely papers over the differences in the negotiating text by accepting many of the elements of last year’s Copenhagen Accord to the extent that it presents a 2 degree warming threshold and a financing ambition for developing countries of $100 billion (USD) by 2020.

Like the Copenhagen Accord, the “possible outcome” text is sketchy on how to monitor emissions, actual emissions mitigation numbers,  and how the financing mechanism will operate.

What is significant here is that the Copenhagen Accord is essentially being used as a basis for determining what exactly is in the so-called “balanced packages.”   Because the US has pushed so hard for some type of international monitoring regime, it will be important to see how these discussions bear out over the next few days.

India has emerged as a broker of compromise, setting forth a proposal for international monitoring.  This would meet US concerns, but at this point India is offering its proposal in exchange for keeping the Kyoto Protocol track alive–something that the US (and now Japan) are not interested in seeing.

China has been the most vocal about resisting US demands for an international monitoring regime, so their response to India’s gesture will be another key development to watch for over the coming days.

I’ll be blogging “live” from Cancún beginning tomorrow, so stay tuned at this site or over on twitter.

Minding the Gap in Cancún

photo: edgeplot

The United Nations Environment Programme released a report last week on the eve of the UN climate change negotiations in Cancún taking stock of last year’s Copenhagen Accord.

The Accord was the document that came out of last year’s negotiations.  It is a document that aspires to restrict global warming to 2˚ centigrade but is not legally-binding.  Consequently it relies on voluntary pledges from nations to reduce their emissions.

This report essentially runs the numbers submitted by various countries and compares them to climate modeling scenarios that would “likely” result in the 2 degree stabilization.  Because there is no consistency in the commitments submitted by 138 countries in response to the Accord, the report develops four basic implementation scenarios.

The main takeaway is that no matter how you cut it, the Copenhagen Accord commitments are likely insufficient to keep global emissions at a level that limits global warming to 2 degrees.

The report does indicate that the gap can be lessened by having strict accounting for land use offsets and for limiting the number of Kyoto-era reduction credits applicable to Copenhagen Accord commitments.

One of the main problems with the Accord is the lack of specificity in how it “counts” emissions reductions and offsets.  Although the meeting in Cancún is not expected to result in a legally binding treaty, there could be movement towards developing a shared understanding of some of these ambiguities.  Whether negotiators choose strict accounting methods or allow a multiplicity of loopholes could give some indication about the efficacy of the Accord and the seriousness of the 2 degree warming limit.

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.

Chicago Inaugurates Modest Bike-Sharing Scheme for Tourists

Schweizer Platz - Frankfurt

Bike-sharing is one of the smartest trends sweeping urban transportation planning these days. The idea is that you set up kiosks around a city where a number of bikes are parked securely. Riders use a credit card or subscription card to “check out” a bike.  They then ride it to another kiosk and drop it off.

It works great for trips less than a mile.  It is convenient (no waiting for a bus or train) and carbon neutral.

The concept has been around for several decades, but it really took off in 2007 when Paris initiated its Vélib’ system which features 20,000 bicycles and over 1500 kiosks.  Since then cities as disparate as Mexico City, Montreal, and Washington, DC have established programs (for more info on the global bike share movement, I highly recommend the Bike-Sharing Blog).

Beginning Friday, Chicago will be the latest entry into the bike sharing game.  The system has been a long-time coming.   Chicago’s Mayor Richard M. Daley is well known as being a biking enthusiast and advocate of “green” public policy.  After a visit to Paris and testing out their system in 2007, he expressed interest in bringing the concept to Chicago.

Unfortunately the system that will be inaugurated this week is too modest and too geared to tourists to have any significant impact on mobility for the vast majority of Chicagoans.

Last year, I had a group of students look into what makes a bike sharing program successful as part of an effort to give the Chicago suburb of Evanston information on the subject.  Evanston was involved in transportation master-planning and its consultants had recommended bike sharing as a program to possibly reduce congestion.

According to our preliminary research, there are a few essential elements that a bike sharing scheme must have in order to make an impact on mobility choices in a city.

  • It should be convenient.  Kiosks need to be placed near activity centers and bikes should be plentiful.  No one will use the service if it doesn’t allow them to go where they need to be and the reliable supply of bikes is essential to get people in the habit of using the service.  The activity centers need to be varied–cultural spots, residences, workplaces, shopping districts.  This allows many potential destinations as well as helps bikes circulate through the system so you don’t have all the bikes at one station during particular times of the day.
  • It should be cheap.  Bikes are one of the cheapest and most efficient forms of transportation; however, there are still costs involved (maintenance, purchase of bikes & kiosks, IT infrastructure to keep track of bikes, etc…).  The trick is to figure out a way to keep the price point at a level where it costs less for the average consumer than other forms of transportation (driving, cabs, etc…).  In order to meet these costs, many cities privatize the system.  The operators will put advertising on the bikes or–as in the case with Paris–the bike service will be part of the general outdoor advertising franchise that cities sell to billboard companies.
  • It should be integrated with other modes of transport.  Kiosks should be set up next to train & bus stations, car sharing spots, parking lots.  This allows for flexibility in movement for the user and translates into more successful system.  The picture above, for instance, was taken in Frankfurt at a place called Schweizer Platz.  The bike sharing kiosk is located at the top of the steps of a U-Bahn station and at the corner of a tram line.  At this spot you can transfer from bike-to-tram, bike-to-U-Bahn, etc…

So how does Chicago measure up on this metric?  The main problem–at this point–is that the system is extremely small and is not integrated with a wide variety of activity centers.  There are only 6 full-service kiosks where you can drop off and pick up a bike.  Three of them are (more or less) strictly tourist destinations (Buckingham Fountain, the Field Museum, McCormick Place).  For those readers unfamiliar with Chicago, basically these spots are destinations with a single use.  The number of residencies and work places near these kiosks is small.   You are not likely to see the bike share displace many higher-carbon trips since the kiosks are essentially inconvenient.

The cost is another factor.  A temporary pass costs $10 for the first hour and $5 for each subsequent 30 minutes.  You can also get a monthly membership that costs $35 which gives you the first hour free and charges $2.50 for each subsequent 30 minutes.

This is way too expensive and is further evidence that the scheme is designed primarily for tourists who may be willing to pay more for a pleasant bike ride on the city’s lakefront.  Most schemes that are designed to be integral parts of a city’s transport system have a very small up-front cost.  London’s new bike share program (which also starts on Friday) is not only much bigger, but only charges 1 pound for a single day pass with free usage for the first half hour.

As a point of comparison, in Chicago, lets say I work at the Daley Center and want to eat lunch at the Field Museum (no one would ever want to do this by the way, but that’s where the kiosks are).  I would check out a bike for $10, ride the mile or so to the museum in about 15 minutes.  I would check the bike in at the Museum.  After my hour lunch, I would have to check out a new bike for another $10 at the Museum for the return trip to Daley Plaza.  Twenty bucks to go out to the museum for lunch!    Of course, if I had a monthly pass, the $35 that I pay each month would cover both rides.  But because there are only 6 kiosks, I would not be likely to buy a monthly pass.

In London, lets say I get off a train at St. Pancras.  I pay £1 access fee and check out a bike, ride it the 1.5 miles to the British Museum in about 15 minutes.  I hang out in the museum for an hour, check out another bike and take another 15 minute ride to Hyde Park.  Later on, I can check out another bike and ride up to Kensington, etc… For that initial £1, riders get unlimited short rides.

Finally, Chicago’s scheme comes up short as a practical transport alternative because of the lack of integration with the city’s public transit system.   There are a couple of kiosks that are within a block or two from the city’s subway system, but the major Metra commuter rail stations are about a mile away from the nearest kiosk!   The system will be useless for the thousands of commuters who travel into the city center from the city’s western and northern suburbs.

I understand that this is essentially a demonstration project.  However, because it doesn’t even make an attempt to link with the destinations that everyday residents use, it is hard to get too excited about it.  A better model for the city to follow would have been Washington DC, where a small program began in 2008 that linked a couple of select neighborhoods with the city center.  The program was so successful that the District of Columbia is expanding the system to include all of the wards in the city as well as neighboring Arlington, Virginia, creating the first regional scheme in the United States.

Chicago could also learn from Mexico City, which recently started a small neighborhood system in Condesa.  The first stage of the scheme in Condesa began with 85 stations with plans for expansion.

At this stage, it is a bit premature to call Chicago’s experiment a proper bike-sharing scheme in the sense that it will enhance mobility options for the city’s residents.  Rather, it is a nice tourist amenity to help our visitors enjoy the lakefront and our cultural assets.

Update [28 Jul. 2010 1:23pm]

After my initial post, I came across this article by the Active Transportation Alliance explaining the origins of the scheme.  It is not a municipal project.  Rather it is an outgrowth of Bike Chicago–a private firm that rents bikes at various locales along the lakefront.  [They also run the dreaded Segway tours that clog downtown sidewalks & bikepaths–please, no Segway sharing schemes!]

I assumed the city was involved given the fact that they issued an RFP for a bike share program in 2007 and Mayor Daley apparently presided over the ribbon cutting ceremony yesterday for the project.

In reality this scheme is an expansion of the existing bike rental infrastructure targeting tourists and leisure users.  It is premature to call it a proper “bike sharing” program.

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.

Boat Public Transit Scheme for Chicago?

An article in last Friday’s New York Times asks the question: why doesn’t New York City have more ferries?  The Staten Island Ferry is probably the most well known; and, of course, there is the popular water taxi from Wall Street to the Ikea in Red Hook, Brooklyn.  But in a high-density urban area surrounded by water, the author argues that the water transportation potential is underutilized.

The New York City Economic Development Corporation is currently putting together a “Comprehensive Citywide Ferry Study,” which should provide some guidance on expanding water transportation in the city.

I’ve always thought that here in Chicago water transportation options could be a fruitful area for reducing congestion and for expanding mobility options.  In particular, the Chicago River and its tributaries could be used in this regard.  Currently there are a couple of water taxi services that connect the main commuter rail stations on the west Loop with Michigan Avenue and Chinatown.  But aside from the water taxis, passenger travel on the river is limited to private boats and tours.

I am sure there are engineering, navigational, and health and safety issues that would need to be squared away before expanding passenger travel on the river, but below I’ve put together a “back of the napkin” map of an ideal route.

Docks are situated at 1.5-2 mile intervals.  In some areas the docks would serve neighborhoods with limited access to the rapid transit system while in others docks would be integrated with rail and bus to enhance mulitmodality.

I’m not sure about the timing or what sort of craft would be viable, but theoretically you could travel from the northern suburb of Evanston to downtown Chicago in a little more than an hour–making it competitive with local trains.  The greatest potential would be for the north side Chicago neighborhoods where boat transit could be integrated with neighborhood commercial districts in areas like Logan Square/Lincoln Square, North/Clybourn, or Lincoln/Peterson.

[gmap class=”{post}” width=”{500}” height=”{500}”]http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?showlabs=1&ie=UTF8&hl=en&msa=0&msid=113069632163166060946.0004887149e4ecad83081&ll=41.976848,-87.705231&spn=0.257783,0.504684&z=11[/gmap]

For a full page view, follow this link.

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.