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!

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.

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.

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.