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No Progress in Copenhagen

by Michal Machnowski

Press review

Slow, if any progress is being made at the Copenhagen climate change talks. As the world’s leading economies trade barbs over the most basic questions about how to divide responsibility for curbing green house gas emissions, the United Nations’ effort to muster global action against climate change appears to moving backwards.

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As world leaders begin to arrive for the climax of the two-week conference, disagreements and division have deepened among negotiators for the US, the EU and a bloc of developing nations led by China.

Rich vs. Poor

The disagreements involve the most basic issues: the size of emission reductions that individual countries should take on, the amount of money rich countries should pay poor countries to help fund the clean up, and the extent of monitoring that countries should have to accept so other nations can verify they actually are implementing whatever environmental steps they promise to take.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the anger and distrust spilling into the open in Copenhagen has been building up for more than a decade. “This is not about climate-change negotiation,” said Janos Pasztor, director of the UN secretary-general’s climate change support team. “It’s about something much more fundamental. It’s about economic strength. Countries will just have to slug it out.”

As the wrangling continues, a new draft agreement has been circulated that stipulates that developed countries were historically responsible for most global emissions of greenhouse gases and so must take the lead in combating climate change by abating their carbon emissions and providing money and technology to poorer nations. That was seen as a bow to developing nations, following a protest by members of the Group of 77, which includes poor countries as well as large emerging economies such as China, Brazil and India, whose representatives briefly walked out of the talks.

The European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, has said that by 2020, anywhere from $33 billion to $70 billion will have to come directly from the public budgets of rich nations each year to help developing nations pay the cost of curbing carbon emissions.

The Obama administration has said it agrees that rich nations should contribute $10 billion a year by 2012 to help developing countries fight climate change, and said it will contribute its “fair share” to that amount. However, at the same time, US officials rejected the idea that they owe the poor nations additional funding to account for the US’s many decades as the world’s top polluter. “We absolutely recognized our historic role in outing emissions in the atmosphere up there that are there now, but the sense of guilt or culpability or reparations, I just categorically reject that,” said Mr. Stern in an interview with CNN.

Additionally, while the US acknowledged that poor countries need to receive greater revenue to combat climate change, it also announced a new initiative, “Climate Redi” to transfer clean-energy technologies to developing nations. The initiative will focus on solar lantern and light-emitting diode technology, super-efficient equipment and appliances, sharing information, and scaling up renewable energy resources such as solar and wind systems. The program is designed to transfer efficiency gains achieved in US appliance manufacturing to the rest of the world. The energy saved in the US by efficiency gains in refrigerators alone is greater than all the energy produced from renewable sources, said US Energy Secretary Steven Chu. Transferred to the rest of the world, that technology could prevent 1.1 gigatons of carbon-dioxide emissions over 5 years.

The current climate change treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, requires developed countries that ratified it to reduce their emissions by a collective 5% below 1990 levels by 2012. But that accord doesn’t curb greenhouse gases from the world’s two biggest emitters, which together account for 40% of greenhouse gas emissions. China, as a developing country, isn’t required to cuts its emissions, and the US didn’t ratify the treaty. If the basic purpose of Copenhagen was to come up with a way to rein in emissions worldwide, it will be a failure without a compromise between the US and China.

US vs. China

European leaders are very concerned that the US and China will try to opt out of any binding deal blaming each other for not offering ambitious proposals. The US and China each announced specific pledges to address greenhouse gas emissions before the Copenhagen conference started. But the two have been locked in a standoff over the US’s insistence that China commit to a legally binding agreement - a step China has resisted - and the degree to which China’s actions should be open to international review.

Developing countries argue that wealthy nations have reneged on past pledges to address climate change. In particular, China suggest that the US has failed to honor its agreement under a broad document called the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to constrain US emissions and to provide money for developing countries to curb their own greenhouse gas output.

According to Politico, the two parties are more interested in taunting each other than talking. “I don’t want to say the gentleman is ignorant, but I think he lacked common sense or he’s extremely irresponsible.” Chinese vice Foreign Minister He Yafei told reporters, referring to top US negotiator Todd Stern. The minister’s declaration was prompted by comments made by Stern at his first press conference when he blasted the Chinese for not doing enough to curb their carbon emissions. Mr. Stern vowed that the US would help some developing countries pay for cutting greenhouse gases-but not China. “I don’t envision public funds-certainly not from the United States - going to China, that’s just life and the real world.” Mr. Stern said.

Stern later tried to downplay the divide between the two nations. “Whether we get a deal or not hangs in the balance.” Mr. Stern said. “But there is a deal to be had with respect to all the major issues, and we are going to work on it.”

To reach a satisfactory conclusion, the two countries must first overcome a complex political stalemate. China, which blames centuries of US pollution for the current state of the world’s climate, won’t do more unless America agrees to make steeper emission cuts and give more money to developing countries in order to help mitigate their emissions. But the United States won’t commit to deep cuts unless China agrees to “robust” actions, arguing that developing countries will be responsible for roughly 28 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas pollution by 2020. China also doesn’t want to submit to international verification of whether it is meeting emission targets that it funds on its own. US officials say they are only asking Chinese officials to give substance to a joint statement issued by Chinese President Hu Jintao and President Obama when President Obama visited China in November.

Amid the bickering, one detail has emerged as a point of contention: the fact that the US wants to use 2005 as the “baseline” year for cutting emissions, instead of 1990 as called for in earlier agreements. Mr. Stern has said that the change was justified, allowed, and not very important. “The reality is we didn’t become a part of Kyoto, and the framework convention has a 1990 baseline. But it was in a non-binding context.”

The EU has said it will cut its emissions by 20% by 2020, and by 30% if a strong global deal is reached. The EU doesn’t want to “sell its targets cheap,” said Andres Carlgren, environment minister of Sweden. But US officials say they are being unfairly criticized. Europe’s proposed emission cuts are measured against 1990 — which was before the Soviet Union’s breakup sent Eastern Europe’s economy, and its emissions, plummeting. Measured against 2005, the EU’s target for 2020 amounts to an emission cut of only 13%, said Mr. Stern, and that “isn’t as aggressive as the 17% cut from 2005 that the US has promised. I have fielded questions all year long from many of my counterparts about why isn’t the US doing more, and as I say, the US is doing a lot. The only measure by which it looks like the US isn’t doing as much as in 1990.”

But this view is not shared by most. According to an interview given by French Ambassador for climate negotiations, Brice Lalonde, the progress of negotiations is “not good,” and complained that the US has been to “defensive” throughout the summit. While praising the Obama administration’s moves to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, he criticized the US for not coming to the summit with a long-term proposal for financing efforts in the developing world to fight climate change. “We’ve lost a lot of time…the question now is becoming, are we going to have enough time. World leaders arriving here are taking huge risks…they are coming at the risk of failure. It’s a signal they really want a deal.”

Yvo de Boer, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, said the US needs to commit to deeper greenhouse gas cuts and bigger contributions to developing countries before there can be any international deal on climate change. “We need more money on the table,” he said.

Mr. Stern has said that the US won’t commit to anything that Congress has not already approved. “I don’t like to promise things that aren’t in my pocket,” said Mr. Stern. Mr. De Boer is counting on President Obama to do better.

With President Obama scheduled to arrive on Friday and the US and Chinese officials still divided over the US governments insistence that China’s actions to control its greenhouse emissions should be subject to international review, the talks are entering “crunch time.”

Prime Minister Gordon Brown told the BBC that the barriers were “huge but not insurmountable. If you don’t get an agreement this week, people will doubt whether you can get an agreement at all. I want every country, and not just a few countries to sign the deal.” The prime minister is putting his weight behind a private carbon market, allowing countries and businesses to buy and sell emissions allowances, as a way of encouraging them to cut carbon output.

Obama vs. Congress

However, the Obama administrations has held off on committing to a longer-term financing deal, saying it will depend on legislation currently before the US Senate that would require companies to pay for the right to emit greenhouse gases. But dramatically expanding international funding faces steep opposition in the Senate, where members are far more worried about the economy and healthcare reform, than they are about delivering climate aid to some of the world’s poorest countries.

Currently, the environmental arithmetic does not add up for lawmakers in Congress. Both Democrats and Republicans from manufacturing and coal producing states fear that US emissions caps, undertaken without similar actions by the Chinese, would send jobs and factories overseas. American negotiators have made China’s agreement for monitoring, verification and reporting requirements a key part of any deal signed in Copenhagen. “There’s a lot of verification we’re going to have to see before I’d embrace it and say it’s positive a development as the Chinese would hope we’d say it is,” said Senator Bob Casey (D-PA). “I’m a little skeptical.”

The tough politics leads some analysts to conclude that serious progress between the United States and China will happen only when, and if, Congress passes a climate bill. The US legislation is likely to include a border tax on Chinese imports if the country fails to take sufficient emission reductions actions by a certain date - a proposal stridently opposed by China. The bill also would create a cap-and-trade market for greenhouse gas emissions, opening up the type of economic opportunities sought out by Chinese entrepreneurs. Those issues, climate experts say, could force the two countries to engage in serious negotiations.

In the end, reducing the effects of climate change “will only come after the US Congress acts, not at Copenhagen,” said Peter Goldmark, director of the Climate and Air program for the Environmental Defense Fund. “That’s when the real negotiations start.”

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