The United Nations Assocation of the National Capitol Area organized a panel on climate change in Asia at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Dr. Carla Freeman, Associate Director, China Studies, SAIS, Dr. Casey Delhotal, Policy Advisor, U.S. Treasury Department, and Dr. Frederick Tipson, Director, UNDP Washington Liaison Office provided background on the on-going UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process, the international obstacles preventing an agreement, and the U.S. position in the global negotiations. The panelists discussed what President Obama will most likely accomplish on climate change during an upcoming trip to China, and whether he will actually attend the Copenhagen meeting in December.
Dr. Carla Freeman, Associate Director, China Studies, SAIS: The recent Barcelona UNFCCC meeting “cast a pall over a global multilateral agreement, but raised expectations about bilateral deals between the U.S. and China or U.S. and India before Copenhagen.” Freeman said there has been an on-going debate between the developed and developing worlds about what the ”common but differentiated responsibilities” on green house gas (GHG) emissions actually means for each group of nations. China is now the world’s largest emitter of CO2, and India is in 4th place.
The U.S. lacks credibility in the global negotiations. The U.S. never ratified the first UNFCCC treaty — the “Kyoto Protocol.” While the Waxman-Markey bill that passed the House would reduce emissions, it isn’t clear by how much. Under some calculations, the new bill would only reduce U.S. emissions to one percent below 1995 levels (instead of the 20 percent it claims).
Some have claimed China’s position in the negotiations has been “intransigent.” However, Freeman thinks China knows it must address climate change. Drying rivers, shrinking glaciers, declines in agricultural productivity all threaten China. “China’s leadership is committed to a solution.” However, China has limited capacity to deal with climate change. China has local capacity issues, as localities often regularly ignore central government decisions on climate change. China doesn’t want to fail in the negotiations and doesn’t want to be seen as blocking a global agreement.
Freeman added that China is concerned, or “even obsessed” with energy security. Some 80 percent of China’s energy comes from domestic coal. While much of the emissions in the U.S. come from the transportation sector, in comparison, China’s emissions come from dirty coal used in building heating / cooling, and manufacturing production. Freeman said commentators used to say China builds a new coal plant every hour. Now, it’s the case that China adds “one GW of wind power every hour.” China has shown leadership in moving to renewable energy on a massive scale. Also, the new coal plants “are relatively clean.”
President Obama’s trip to China will not yield a roadmap for Copenhagen, but more joint research and development (R&D) and technical assistance.
Frederick Tipson, Director, UNDP Washington Liaison Office: Reducing C02 emission reductions will require a lengthy and complex political and economic process; one meeting in Copenhagen won’t do the trick. What the global community needs is a framework that is compatible with national goals, because “it’s the countries and local communities that must put climate action plans into place.”
Formerly a counsel with the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Tipson saw the U.S. delay on ratifying the UN Law of the Sea. The U.S. never ratified because it could set a precedent for global management over aspects of the U.S. economy. Wearing his academic cap, Tipson asked: “If the Senate couldn’t ratify the Law of the Sea, which doesn’t create real political problems for the U.S., how will it ratify a new legally-binding Copenhagen agreement?” He thinks President Obama will have a very difficult time getting a global agreement through Congress. “Issues relating to the management of the global commons are often framed as a reduction of U.S. power to manage its own resources.”
“How can we get other countries to act?” There need to be absolute numbers on C02 emission reductions, but there needs to be a collective bargaining on these. “There are so many elements.” For instance, Tipson saw negotiations on creating a global, inter-connected cap and trade system as hugely complex. Additionally, countries are still struggling to develop an internationally acceptable definition of C02 emissions, let alone the definition of an acceptable carbon credit. “Transparency will be a huge challenge.”
A new post-Kyoto agreement may need to have greater consequences or penalties for missing C02 emission reduction targets, but this may not happen. Canada, which signed on to the Kyoto Protocol, is more than 30 percent over its C02 emission reduction targets. “All the international system can do is name and shame.”
The UNFCCC process should be seen like the World Trade Organization’s Doha round, more like a process instead of just one meeting. The United Nations is “excellent at facilitating and knows how to run a global negotiation process.” UNDP hopes to play a trusted advisor role to developing countries and help ”mainstream climate change” into national development plans.
Dr. Casey Delhotal, Policy Advisor, U.S. Treasury Department: Treasury’s climate change office is focused on the financial aspects of climate change. “We will need massive markets to deal with this.” The U.S. also wants to provide oversight over C02 market development, and the host of tax, investment, trade policy and other economic issues that will be involved in a move towards a cap and trade system. The U.S. treasury department was deeply involved in creating the financing mechanisms in the Waxman-Markey bill. Treasury is also interested in helping countries meet their climate change adaptation and mitigation needs through financing.
Delhotal says we have no idea how the final Senate climate bill will look once it goes through the five more committees reviewing it. “We also have no idea how it will look after the Senate – House conference on the bill.” There will be a great deal of compromise to get it passed.
Internationally, the current U.S. domestic negotiations on climate change legislation leave the U.S. in an “awkward position.” “We can’t commit to targets, put money on the table, or sign on to any legally binding agreements. The U.S. can’t pledge anything that will hurt the domestic process.” Even if the U.S. signed on to Copenhagen, the agreement wouldn”t create the authority and funding only the U.S. Senate can give to domestic agencies to go out and act on GHG emissions. The U.S. official position is in support of 50 percent emission reductions by 2050, and final cuts of 80-85 percent.
“Global negotiations have been contentious because of distrust.” As a result, a legally-binding global agreement isn’t likely. A political agreement around general language is more likely. Delhotal thinks the U.S. has a positive relationship with China on climate change, but the upcoming Obama meeting with China’s Hu Jintao also may not result in anything more than a joint statement. Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s new joint U.S.-China carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) initiative is also a bright spot in the bilateral relationship.
When asked whether the EPA could move on regulating C02 emissions under the Clear Air Act if the U.S. Senate fails to act, Delhotal says the EPA has only passed the first step in a six step process for that authority. Given the EPA may focus more on technical standards and technology, an EPA approach may not favor cap and trade, and could cost more than a Congressional approach.
On the idea that a new global framework is needed and a new forum, Delhotal says other efforts in the past have failed. “Developing countries prefer the UNFCCC forum. Any agreement must include mitigation targets and financing.” While the U.S. is seeking to create new global carbon funds, it also wants access to the Climate Development Mechanism (CDM) for the U.S. domestic market. However, under a U.S. cap and trade system, the U.S. will be looking to buy “1.5 billion tones of carbon per year.” She thought more funds / financing mechanisms, including sectoral mechanisms like REDD, would definitely be needed to meet global demand in the future.
Read Guardian (UK) coverage of the UNFCCC negotiations. Obama recently said: “If I am confident that all the countries involved are bargaining in good faith and we are on the brink of a meaningful agreement and my presence in Copenhagen will make a difference in tipping us over edge, then certainly that’s something that I will do.”