Circle of Blue’s senior editor, Keith Schneider, lays the backdrop for the climate negotiations, highlighting the United States’ shortfalls.
BARCELONA (November 4, 2009) — Given the scary hazards of climate change – more killer storms, rising seas, farmland turning to dust, and time running out on reaching agreement on a global plan that leads to a solution – a bit of humor and irony is probably a good thing. Early Monday morning, at the start of the final negotiating session before a big climate conference next month in Copenhagen, delegates from 192 countries were greeted by the insistent beeping and whining of hundreds of bedside alarm clocks.
The demonstration, organized by a global climate campaign called tck,tck,tck, was more than apt. Two years ago leaders of nearly 200 nations committed to diabolically difficult negotiations, buffeted by economic, ideological, and geographical impediments of every sort, in order to reach Copenhagen in December 2009 to sign a global treaty with the completely serious goal of saving the world.
In a series of negotiating sessions, periodically convened since in places like Bangkok, Bonn, Bali and Barcelona the basic outlines of the plan have taken shape. The limits that developed countries are willing to put on carbon pollution that causes climate change is now common knowledge. The dimensions of the technological changes that are necessary to completely alter how the world powers itself have come into clearer focus. The magnitude of the cost of making the transition to a new epoch have been calculated. And there is general agreement that the wealthy nations that burned all that carbon-rich fuel have financial responsibilities to the developing countries that want to get cleaner and economically greener.
Weaving Strands Into Rope?
But there are just five days here, and 29 more until Copenhagen for the parties to this treaty writing process to tie all of the various strands into a rope strong enough to haul the world away from peril and into an entirely different era where the quality of the environment and the strength of the economy are one and the same.
“Copenhagen must open the door to the common good and close the door to human disaster,” said Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, who is overseeing the negotiations. “Barcelona is essential to putting the architecture in place. This will not be a spectacular session, but it will be an important one.”
Success in the Barcelona meeting, say delegates and climate advocates, means more clearly defining which nations will put less carbon into the atmosphere, how it will be done and who will pay, shaping new markets, agreeing to monitor and enforce new rules, sharing clean energy and pollution control technology, making available energy efficiency practices. It also means agreeing to an effective system to help vulnerable regions like Bengladesh and most of Africa cope with the changing climate. And most importantly it means gaining a legally binding pact that commits nations to do what they said they’d do.
Very plainly, if all that and about a hundred other details gain more definition in Barcelona, the participating countries would have cooperated in a way that the nations of the world are just not accustomed to. And more importantly Copenhagen could be the moment and the place that countries sign what is generally considered the most complicated, confounding, necessary, and expensive international agreement ever considered.
“This is the moment of truth when the world decides whether it is committed to solving climate change or just playing theater,” said Kim Carstensen, leader of the World Wildlife Fund’s Global Climate Initiative. “We’ve been dismayed by statements that there is too little time left. We insist that we have the time to develop a binding outcome, to achieve emissions reductions, to show action on developing countries, finance, and institutions. We have the public will.”
It’s taken a long time to reach this point. The improved science, growing evidence of damage, and mounting public restiveness have steadily built into a potent global movement that has been helped considerably by the United Nations. Thirty years ago researchers gathered at the First World Climate Conference to pore over early scientific evidence of human causes of global warming. In 1988, while Yellowstone National Park burned and the Great Plains withered under a devastating drought, the U.S. Congress held a celebrated summer hearing on rising levels of carbon in the atmosphere and the consequent planetary warming. The same year the United Nations established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which became the premier scientific body studying the problem. In 1992, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was established to oversee the development of global climate treaties, and a process of bringing nations together to develop the agreements, the first of which was adopted in Kyoto, Japan in 1997.
The meeting of the Conference of Parties in Copenhagen is the 15th (COP15) such gathering and its primary goal is to dramatically strengthen the Kyoto agreement, write a new treaty, or somehow merge the two.
U.S. Is Center Stage?
What happens in Barcelona is heavily influenced by the United States, which signed the Kyoto treaty but never submitted it for Congressional approval. That was just fine with President George W. Bush, who never really embraced the dangers of climate change, rejected the treaty, and seemed to delight in jabbing his thumb in the belly of the U.N. and global negotiators for eight years.
But President Barack Obama, who’s repeatedly expressed concern about a warming and drying planet and said the U.S. will participate in the global work to develop solutions, is also mindful of Kyoto. His chief negotiator, Jonathan Pershing, the deputy special envoy for climate change, has told delegates that the administration will be guided by what happens with climate and energy legislation now making its way through Congress.
The House passed a version of the bill in June. The Senate just held hearings on its version. Both bills, anticipating the Copenhagen treaty writing, incorporate limits on carbon emissions and levels of financing in the $4 billion to $5 billion annual range.
The president’s Republican opponents, though, are trying to block any more work on the legislation. As a result, the United States, until the last two years the largest carbon polluter and now second behind China, and still the world’s largest economy says it has not yet received clear guidance from Congress. It therefore says it cannot announce a specific target for limiting emissions or a specific amount to contribute financially to helping developing nations make the transition to a clean energy economy.
Delegates here say both numbers are vital to the success of the negotiations and they are clearly frustrated with the U.S. Andreas Carlgren, the environment minister in Sweden who represented the European Union at a news conference on Monday noted that the EU has committed to reduce emissions 30 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and 85 to 95 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.
Last week, the EU formally calculated that it would cost 110 billion Euros (150 billion U.S. dollars) annually to help the developing world achieve reductions of similar magnitude and make the transition to a clean energy economy. The EU estimated that 22 billion to 50 billion Euros of this amount would come from public funds and let it be known that its share would be 3 to 22 billion Euros.
The obvious implication of Carlgren’s message was where is the United States?
“The EU is more than ever fully prepared to reach a deal,” said Carlgren, who then quoted a famous line from an American movie on the Apollo space program. “Failure is not an option.”
Yvo de Boer also seemed to wag a finger.
“There is quite some ground to cover,” de Boer said. “Adaptation, technology, mitigation, finance. We must deliver substantial reductions. We cannot wait any longer. Do any of you believe it will easier next year or the year after. You know it is not going to get any easier.”
The most pointed comments, though, came from Connie Hedegaard, the Danish minister for climate and energy, who is hosting the Copenhagen meeting.
“We have gotten used to the fact in World War I, World War Two, the Cold War, the fight against terror that the world could count on the US to deliver on huge challenges,” she said. “I believe they have to deliver on this challenge. And if we don’t reach agreement in Copenhagen, who will lose the most? One of the most defined losers is American business.”
?In his news conference on Monday, Pershing pushed back against such doubt and criticism. He said “development of a domestic number is under way and we are actively working with the Congress. “ Pershing cautioned against deciding “how blame is apportioned. That is not a constructive thing. We think we can get there. The constructive thing is to push forward on an agreement.”
Pershing described the administration’s work on the clean energy portions of the Recovery Act that the president signed in February, which committed the U.S. to a nearly $100 billion investment over the next two years on developing alternatives, energy efficiency, clean energy manufacturing, and research. He explained once more that the Kyoto experience has hampered the White House, and he seemed to signal that the stalemate over climate and energy in the Senate could be resolved over the next month.
“All countries are making their own choices about how they do their negotiation,” Pershing said. “In Kyoto we brought something home that we thought would be acceptable and Congress did not accept it. We are working together with Congress to adopt something internationally that we can enact domestically. “
He added: “We fortunately have another month for work to be done in the U.S. and around the word. We will continue to work actively in the Senate and we think we will have the kind of information we need to move forward.”
Keith Schneider is senior editor at Circle of Blue. This report first appeared on the U.S. Climate Action Network Web site and is used with permission. Contact Keith Schneider
Circle of Blue’s senior editor and chief correspondent based in Traverse City, Michigan. He has reported on the contest for energy, food, and water in the era of climate change from six continents. Contact