by Andrew Light and Gwynne Taraska
Those who have followed the international climate negotiations over the last few years have had good reason to expect that this year’s UN climate summit in Qatar would be comparatively more quiet. The primary reason is straightforward. Last year, the 194 parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change decided in Durban to set themselves on a three year path to create a new climate agreement “applicable to all parties” to be finalized by 2015 and enter into force by 2020.
In the already difficult arena of these negotiations, where every party has an effective veto, a three-year time table for a treaty greatly slows things down, as parties carefully float test balloons for ideas and bits of language and gauge reactions. It can be frustrating to watch from the outside given the gravity of the situation at hand — just as frustrating as watching the paralysis of the U.S. Senate in the face of the filibuster rule — but no party has the power to force a more timely agreement once this clock has been set. The last time something like this happened in this forum, in the 2008 Poznan meeting between the 2007 start of the run-up to Copenhagen and the actual summit in 2009, the result was a staid affair as appropriately dreary as the Polish winter. There was no motivation to push decisions to the brink until the scheduled showdown.
So far, this year’s meeting has followed this predictable pattern except for one noteworthy exception: a steady stream of largely unsubstantiated accusations that the U.S. is somehow blocking progress at a meeting where almost nothing is moving forward except for debates about the future of the Kyoto Protocol which the U.S. does not participate in.
A more extreme example happened this week in Doha at a press conference titled “What Obama Must Do Immediately.” The questions leveled by the participants were reasonable. Will Hurricane Sandy change the dynamic of climate policy in the U.S., especially when polling now indicates that 70 percent of the American people think climate change is happening? How will the U.S. fulfill its pledge to reduce its emissions 17 percent by 2020? Will the U.S. continue its funding for mitigation and adaptation in developing countries now that the $30 billion fast start period between 2009 and 2012 has ended? And how will the U.S. contribute to the goal of sourcing the new Green Climate Fund, which aims to deliver a significant portion of the promised $100 billion per year in climate finance by 2020?
But what struck us as unreasonable, if not a distraction from the hard work that is actually before this body right now, was the repetition of charges that the U.S. is actually doing nothing on climate change now and is determined to shirk any responsibility whatsoever in the global struggle over climate change. The high point, or low point, depending on one’s perspective, was a call by Greenpeace International’s Kumi Naidoo for President Obama to order America’s lead negotiators back to Washington. While Naidoo opined that without a different mandate these negotiators are only “producing more hot air” in the climate talks, the call for recalling them is likely some of the hottest air yet seen in Doha.
The 17% Target
The United States pledged during the Copenhagen climate talks of 2009 to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. In this press conference, Samantha Smith of WWF Global charged that the target is “all talk.”
“We would love to see the US explain how it is going to meet the 17 percent target,” she said, “which, by the way, is completely inconsistent with science and not adequate, because it’s not clear with current policies the U.S. is going to be able to meet even this commitment.”
While it is no doubt the case that all parties need to increase their ambition this decade – a point we will return to below – America’s 17 percent target is actually within range. And while the U.S. negotiators have been criticized throughout this meeting for citing independent studies on the trajectory of U.S. emissions by 2020, the policies that are contributing to meeting this goal so far are in fact quite clear, as are the next steps even without cooperation from Congress.
Deputy Special Envoy for Climate Change Jonathan Pershing noted in his opening press conference on November 26 that U.S. energy sector emissions are already at 8.8 percent below 2005 levels. In his press briefing on December 3, U.S. Special Envoy Todd Stern defended the attainability of the 17 percent target by citing the recent Resources for the Future report, “US Status on Climate Change Mitigation (October 2012),” which concludes that the U.S. is “on course to achieve reductions of 16.3 percent from 2005 levels in 2020. The RFF report does require more action than the US has taken so far to meet our 17 percent commitment, though nothing substantially beyond the reach of existing executive authority. And while there are some concerns about how some of the estimates are generated, other reports come to similar conclusions, which gives reason for further refinement of these policies.
What has been done at the national level has happened despite an uncooperative Congress. The RFF report justifies its conclusion by citing 1) regulations of CO2 under the Clean Air Act; 2) “secular trends in fuel prices and energy efficiency” including the resulting move from coal to natural gas in the electricity sector; and 3) subnational initiatives such as the new cap and trade system in California. To be sure, some of the policies assumed in this modeling have not yet emerged, such as the expected regulations on existing stationary power sources, but their absence sets a clear road map for what advocates should push for in a second term of the Obama administration.
Even a less optimistic new report by the Center for Climate Strategies explains how we can approach the 17 percent target. Built on data from DOE, EIA, and AEO and titled “Developing and Assessing Economic, Energy, and Climate Security and Investment Options for the US,” the report finds that projections of CO2 and equivalent GHG emissions in the energy sector through 2020 have dropped 23 percent compared to the projections of 2005. This would bring “the country’s emissions 69 percent of the way to the 2020 climate change goal.”
As Climate Progress previously reported, the economic downturn accounts for a significant portion of this drop, 22 percent on their estimation, but state and federal policies “from city building codes encouraging energy efficiency to state renewable energy standards to national car mileage standards” had a more considerable effect, accounting for 46 percent of the reduction. Here is a selection of specific factors or policies identified in the report and the percentage of the drop they bring about:
- Switching from coal to gas in electricity sector: 6 percent.
- State renewable electricity portfolio standards: 6 percent.
- Renewable fuel programs: 6 percent.
- Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards: 11 percent.
- State energy efficiency portfolio standards: 12 percent.
Furthermore, the report presents a path from the 69 percent mark to the neighborhood of the goal itself. It identifies 20 new policies that would help us “close the gap to the 2020 goal of 17 percent below 2005 emissions by 2023” if they were implemented across the states. These include a national clean energy standard; rebates for electric vehicles; a national renewable fuel standard; more public transportation; appliance standards; and reforestation and forest retention practices. Most if not all of these policies are currently under some level of consideration.
In addition, we would like to point out the importance of contributions from sub-national programs such as California’s new cap and trade system, which would further reduce emissions by 2020. According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, “California’s emissions trading system will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from regulated entities by more than 16 percent between 2013 and 2020.”
All that said, given the abject skepticism expressed here on whether and how the U.S. can meet its goal, where is the similar call for transparency on how, say, China will manage to reduce its carbon intensity by 40 percent to 45 percent below 2005 levels by 2020? Where is the call for more ambition from the world’s largest carbon polluter, which is on track now to become the world’s largest historical emitter some time in the 2030s? Can we expect a companion session to be scheduled later in the week titled “What Xi Jinping Must Do Immediately?” It’s likely not, but consistency would demand that we should.
U.S. credibility in this process largely comes in two forms: what we can do to reduce our emissions, and how much assistance we can bring to the table for poorer countries to develop sustainably on a low carbon path. Toward that end, during the last three years, the U.S. has contributed $7.46 billion during the fast start financing period, amounting to almost a quarter of the stated $30 billion global goal. During the Copenhagen climate talks of 2009, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton pledged that “the U.S. is prepared to work with other countries to jointly mobilize $100 bn a year by 2020.”
But these contributions to date do not impress Smith from WWF. Sounding as if the U.S. alone must deliver on the 2020 climate finance goal, she said in this session, “What we would like to see is a plan for how the U.S. is going to deliver on this $100 billion commitment. Where’s the money? Or, if there’s no money, where’s the plan for delivering the money and the description of the sources?” Others in the session worried that U.S. negotiators haven’t even signaled whether our current finance commitments will go up rather than down, or continue at current levels.
But again, Todd Stern did in fact provide a response to most of these questions in the U.S. press briefing on December 3, indicating an expectation that the Administration will at least continue on its current level of finance working toward the larger 2020 goal:
“We were part of the commitment that the president himself made in Copenhagen to join with other donor countries in the fast start pledge of … approaching 30 billion dollars in the years 2010, 11, and 12. The most recent numbers that I have seen overall for the donor countries is … 33.6 billion. The US number for that period of time from all sources including appropriated funding as well as the public funding increment of what OPIC [Overseas Private Investment Corporation] does is around 7.5 [billion] which I think is quite good. This is for us, for Europe, for many players obviously very challenging fiscal times. And we have every intention to continue pressing forward with funding of that same kind of level to the greatest extent that we can. Obviously we need to get money appropriated by congress and OPIC needs to be able to continue finding essentially green energy infrastructure deals to finance. But I expect that to continue. We’re committed to it and we’re committed to the longer term goal of mobilizing funding by 2020 in the context of the right kind of mitigation and transparency.”
Nonetheless, the U.S. is coming under fire at the meeting, because unlike other countries, it’s not ready to announce its next year or three years of finance commitment this week in Doha. But this of course says absolutely nothing about the Obama administration’s commitment to near- or long-term climate finance. No one in the Administration could tell us with certainty today what we’re going to be spending next year on anything from school lunch programs to highway maintenance. Unlike the UK, which announced its continuing climate finance pledge this week, America does not have a parliamentary system where the head of government is the head of the legislature. Congress has the power of the purse, and all budgets are a matter of negotiation. This reality can’t simply be wished away. What’s most important is the continuing steady signals that this is a priority for the Administration, which is the most we can get right now.
Increasing Ambition by 2020
As suggested above, we do agree with Smith that the current global pledges to reduce emissions are inadequate. As has been clearly established, the world faces an ambition gap between the current cumulative pledges from 141 countries under the Copenhagen Accord to reduce their emissions by 2020 and where we need to be by then to keep the door open to eventual stabilization at 2 degrees Celsius. In his opening press conference last week, Jonathan Pershing, quoting President Obama, did not deny this but stated flatly, “We haven’t done as much as we need to do.”
Unfortunately though, no parties have stepped up to the plate and offered to increase their ambition this decade. Rather, some of them seem willing only to demand that other parties increase their emission reductions. A submission to the Doha summit last week by Bolivia, China, India, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and a handful of other countries called for developed parties to “reduce their aggregate emissions by 40 to 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.” This would be twice the highest commitment of any party to these talks to date. Even the most streamlined parliamentary government is unlikely to be able to take it on this week or any time soon.
But not responding to such requests in the affirmative does not indicate a weakness of will. Such calls for action are not laudatory, they are not heroic, and they are not productive. It’s easy to address the current ambition gap toward achieving any hope of climate safety by simply stipulating that other parties take it on entirely. What is harder is to find a cooperative solution that is actually achievable and appropriately divides burdens among the world’s largest carbon polluters.
The final paragraph of the Durban Platform asked parties to submit proposals last February for increasing the level of ambition this decade, to create a work plan for overcoming the ambition gap. While some parties also used the opportunity to insist that global emissions should be stabilized by a handful of countries, others, such as the U.S., generated productive ideas, such as ramping up mitigation on short-lived climate pollutants like HFCs, methane, and black carbon, and fulfilling existing commitments in the G20 to remove subsidies for fossil fuels.
None of these initiatives were discussed in the session on “What Obama Must Do Immediately,” perhaps because the Administration has already been doing them. The U.S. has submitted a proposal every year since 2009 with Canada and Mexico to phase out HFCs under the Montreal Protocol. Last February, the U..S and five other countries created the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to focus on the reduction of a range of short-lived climate pollutants that collectively could reduce warming by half a degree Celsius and maintain those savings if followed by aggressive carbon reduction measures; 20 parties and a variety of NGOs are now part of this coalition. We estimate that together, such measures could cut the current ambition gap in half on the high end of the Copenhagen Pledges.
But most importantly, all of these measures could be pursued outside of the UN climate negotiations among smaller sets of parties who might be less inclined to engage in the Kabuki theatre that seems to be an annual part of these proceedings.
Andrew Light is a Senior Fellow and Gwynne Taraska is a Visiting Research Associate at the Center for American Progress working on international climate and energy policy. Both are also affiliated with the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at George Mason University.