Wednesday, December 16, 2009


With the rising sense of foreboding in the Bella Center about the possibility of a legally binding agreement coming out of the Copenhagen negotiations, I thought we should maybe update some of the specifics found in the U.S. proposal and some of the sticking points that remain to be solved. So please bear with me through some of the details.

This growing doubt about the inevitability of a deal being made is being fed by key negotiators (such as Todd Stern of the U.S. and Connie Hedegaard of the UN) publicly talking about the "great deal of work yet to be done" even though there is precious little time before the clock ticks down at the end of the conference on Friday. As Tuvalu stated a moment ago, there is the sense that "we are on the titanic and sinking fast".

A number of major issues still need to be resolved. The two most significant are grounded in mitigation: how much of a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions are countries willing to commit to by the mid-range goal (2020) and the longer-range goal of 2050. For industrialized nations like the U.S., emission cuts are expected to be from some baseline such as the gross amount of emissions that country emitted in 1990 or 2005. For developing countries, they are expected to take actions to quantitatively limit their emissions with the expectation that there is room for further development. The last major issue at hand is that of financing, how much will the developed countries transfer to the developing and least developed countries to help them adjust to any agreement made because it will essentially represent another limitation to development possibilities. Much of this financial transfer has been discussed in terms of technology transfer, can the industrialized nations ensure that the developing countries have ready access to technologies that will allow them to develop in ways that are acceptable under some carbon limitation.

So what is the U.S. offering? Right now, the U.S. offer is seen by many of the parties here in Copenhagen as not ambitious enough to make a significant difference to mitigate significant impacts of climate change. They are committing to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 17% (compared to a 2005 baseline) by 2020, 30% by 2025, 42% by 2030, and 83% by 2050. It has been noted by many critics here that compared to the 1990 baselines that many other countries are using, this represents a 3% cut in overall emissions by 2020 while many other countries are pledging to make cuts up to 45% of 1990 levels.

Todd Stern, the chief negotiator for the U.S. indicates that the entirety of the plan taken out to 2050 makes the U.S. proposal roughly equivalent to the proposals made by the other industrialized nations. While this may be true, there are a couple of aspects that should be pointed out. First, this significantly back loads the agreement. For example, the committed emission cuts nearly double in the last 20 years up to 2050. The likelihood of the agreement being violated increases as the cuts get more difficult. In the U.S. scenario, there is little room for error. Front loading the agreement would seem to make a bit more sense as the easiest way to cut emissions is through increased efficiency. In other words, making buildings, cars, appliances and factories more efficient, a far more manageable goal than creating new green infrastructure, is what is likely to come first and offer the most bang for your buck. Why not make those commitments up front?

China has offered goals as well, but the U.S. and other industrialized countries have referred to these as "disappointing". China has not been talking of reducing emissions, they have created a new measurement called carbon intensity. They have pledged to reduce carbon intensity 40-45% by 2020 (based on 2005 emissions). This is basically the amount of carbon dioxide it emits per unit of GDP. One of the most significant problems with this measure is that there are few ways to independently audit what the internal GDP of China is in any given year. So if they were inclined to cook the books and claim they were doing a better job than they were at reducing emissions, they could feasibly lower the published GDP values for the country overall. Without some external mechanism designed to independently check on the GDP of a country, this is not a measure that is likely to win a lot of support. It does raise the issue that perhaps the way in which emissions from industrialized countries is measured is not the best way in which to track emission reductions from developing countries.

Over the course of the negotiations another issue that has come up over and over again is climate reparations, related to the gross financing package being directed at developing countries and funded by industrialized countries. In perhaps the biggest success coming out of the Copenhagen talks thus far, REDD, the mechanism whereby some of these monies will be transferred from industrialized to developing nations is as carbon credits instead of a "handout" that relies on the good will of the industrialized countries.

As for reparations, Stern and most of the other industrialized countries refuse to acknowledge that this is a valid term that should be used. The idea is that since industrialized countries have over the years produced the vast majority of the greenhouse gases that are driving climate change, they should essentially pay for the damage that these changes will generate to developing countries. Stern had what I though was a nuanced position on this. He outright rejects the notion of climate reparations on the grounds that the term "conveys culpability and guilt". It is a term that admits wrongdoing while, for the majority of the time period that industrialized countries were emitting these gases it wasn't understood what effect this was having on climate. The G77 and many other developing countries see this more as an issue of justice however and the argument made by Stern is likely to fall on deaf ears.

When I started writing this post things looked sticky and complicated but doable. Since then, we have seen Connie Hedegaard (in charge of the conference) resign. No reasons were given, many are being speculated. One possible reason is the idea that she had promised the developing countries that she would not abandon the "two-track" process in favor of a "one-track" approach (more on this in my next post). She may have been under too much high-level pressure to be able to fulfill this promise (credit for this idea belongs to Mark) and therefore resigning was the only real option as breaking that promise would instantly mark her as untrustworthy to developing nations. This is still all speculation however, all will be revealed in the end. Please keep fingers and toes crossed.

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