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Energy

Cancun Expert Blog



Editor's Note: As the energy debate rages on at the U.N. climate summit in Cancun, Mexico, NationalJournal.com's Amy Harder hosts a panel of insiders with comments on the summit.

 

Leadership, Not Inaction Important Message to Send to World
By Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass.
Chairman, House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming

The international climate community descends on Mexico this week in an effort to build upon the framework set out during last year’s climate negotiations in Copenhagen. And while President Obama’s efforts led to the Copenhagen Accord, current political challenges both here in the United States and globally have created the Cancun Conundrum. People want to know – where do we go from here?

One thing is for certain, the world’s climate is becoming more erratic.

 

As I detailed in my previous National Journal post, 2010 was when the warnings from the scientific community were on full display, from deadly wildfires in Moscow to heat waves and droughts that killed crops and disrupted grain markets. In America, we endured flooding from Massachusetts to Nashville that cost taxpayers billions in damages.

Pakistan may have seen the most alarming climate harbinger, as torrential flooding decimated the country, displacing millions. During a Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warning briefing in September, the Pakistani Ambassador testified about the flooding that threatened to destabilize his county. He detailed how helicopters and other resources used in the fight against Al Qaeda had to be diverted to deal with this climate disaster.

In the face of these tragic events, the nations who deny and refuse action will look increasingly indifferent in the eyes of the world. Nations like the United States, India and China -- who are the among the world’s largest emitters of carbon pollution -- will be face-to-face with these countries at the Mexico negotiations. What will they say?

China remains the ultimate paradox, admitting last week that they are indeed the world’s biggest polluter. While they are now importing coal to feed their economic engine, China has also announced a $738 billion investment into clean energy technology, a sum that will help them attract trillions in private capital and dominate the global market for clean energy for decades to come.

 

Last year the House put the United States in a better position by passing the Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy & Security Act -- a job creating measure that used the same free market approach invented by a Republican US President, favored by US industry and currently being used in Europe. However, the Senate killed that effort, threatening to pull our nation further behind China in the race for jobs and credibility on the global stage. 

Question: In light of obstruction by Senate Republicans, the United States has failed to send a signal to the world that we intend to be the leader in clean energy jobs and technologies. Following massive humanitarian disasters across the globe from extreme weather events occurring during the hottest year on record, what programs, success stories and new ideas can the United States bring to the table in Mexico? With trillions of dollars in private investment hanging in the balance, how can the United States convince the world we are serious about clean energy jobs and not in denial about the threat we currently face? And what firm commitments will need to be made at these negotiations to move the process forward?

 

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7 Responses

U.S. Climate Bill Not Panacea

By Stephen Eule

The premise of Chairman Markey’s question doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the international negotiations, and it perpetuates the fallacy that lack of a U.S. climate law is the key stumbling block to a new international agreement. As the Energy Institute’s President and CEO, Karen Harbert, told Congress, “The idea that if the U.S. goes first, China, India and other emerging economies will fall into line behind is an article of faith that carries with it great risk.” That testimony is as relevant today as it was in February 2009, when she delivered it before Chairman Markey’s committee.

Last year’s meeting in Copenhagen provided a practical lesson climate realpolitik. Recall that as the final deal on the Copenhagen Accord was being struck among a small group nations, the European Union, which has had legislation in place for many years, wasn’t even in the room. And with little left to offer and even less negotiating leverage, it’s no wonder.

It also bears repeating that countries do not check their national interests at the UN cloakroom. Developing countries, including large emerging economies, have said time and again that they are not prepared to accept binding commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions because they see it as a threat to their economic development. I believe them. That’s also why while China, India, and others talk green, they are still investing most of their green into traditional oil, gas, and coal plays. Indeed, recent data (through 2008) from the International Energy Agency show that the energy supplies of large emerging economies, especially in Asia, continue to “recarbonize” rather than decarbonize. It’s a stretch to think that U.S. legislation would change that.

Moreover, domestic legislative proposals didn’t touch on, much less resolve, some of the most contentious issues that divide developed and developing countries in the international negotiations—and some provisions could have even widened these divisions (e.g., those on border adjustments). Comparability of developed country commitments, burden-sharing by developing countries, finance of developing country actions (known as NAMAs), trade, technology transfer and treatment of intellectual property, and measuring, reporting, and verification of actions are just a few of the areas domestic legislation doesn’t really address in any meaningful way. This isn’t to say that a domestic law wouldn’t be welcomed by the other countries, but it certainly wouldn’t be the final piece of the puzzle.

The Energy Institute’s pre-Copenhagen report released last year reviews many of these issues in detail, and its conclusions remain germane to the Cancún meeting. In it, we argued that an agreement that focuses on technology offers a path forward that developed and developing countries can embrace. After all, how rapidly advanced energy technologies develop and are adopted commercially will be the most important factor in determining how quickly and at what cost greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced. An accelerated program to improve the performance and lower the costs of advanced alternate energy technologies can, if successful, broaden the range of economically and politically viable policy options available to decision makers. A successful new agreement, then, should promote new partnerships involving developed, emerging, and developing countries and the private sector that create opportunities for technology co-operation, public-private partnerships, innovative financing, and capacity building.

We also urged governments to take steps outside of the Framework Convention to lower barriers to technology transfer and commerce. Eliminating tariff and non-tariff barriers to environmental goods and services should be pursued vigorously to lower costs and increase global access of clean energy technologies. Both could result in real progress and restore trust among the Parties.

And as a final observation on the failure to pass climate legislation, let’s just say there is plenty of blame to go around. The Chairman’s own climate change bill included by our count 1,400 mandates or regulations—that’s an average of one for each of the bill’s 1,400 pages! And it didn’t do anything to streamline siting and permitting of energy facilities or pre-empt permanently EPA and state-level regulations. That’s hardly the way to provide a predictable environment for business to invest in jobs of any hue.

 

3-Step Plan To Success

By Lou Leonard

The United States enters the international climate talks today in a tough spot. With the Senate’s failure to pass a climate bill, the question on everyone’s mind here in Cancun is whether the US wants to be a leader on climate change or step on the brakes and allow Brazil, China, Europe and others to surge ahead in the clean energy race.

After letting tensions with China around other foreign policy issues spillover into unnecessarily strong rhetoric on climate issues during the past year, some are even asking whether the US can be a constructive player in at the negotiations in Cancun.

Of course it can.  Here’s how:

  1. Lay out a plan. Under the Copenhagen Accord, the US committed to reduce carbon pollution by 17 percent saying it would meet this target through the now-defunct climate bill. Countries are understandably wondering if the US can and will still meet this pledge. In recent press conferences, Special Envoy Todd Stern has said that the US stands behind its target. In Cancun, the United States can rebuild trust by formally reiterating this pledge and describing in broad strokes how the US will reach it.

    The US should also agree to develop a more detailed action plan to meet this target going forward. For two years, the US has been asking for such plans from developing countries as a way to promote transparency and trust.  It’s time for the US to start practicing what it preaches.
  2. Be a team player.  Of course, the US is engaged with China on many issues (from currency to trade and beyond), but to give Cancun a chance for success all parties need to dial down the rhetoric and get down to work on climate. Important progress is possible here on key issues from forest protection to helping vulnerable countries prepare for climate impacts to strengthening information sharing and transparency around countries’ domestic actions. But we won’t achieve any of it unless all countries show flexibility and dial back their posturing.   
  3. Start safeguarding our planet now. Climatic changes are already affecting vulnerable ecosystems and threatening communities all around the world. In Cancun, the United States should support creating the new global climate fund agreed to last year to help countries address these growing risks and build a clean energy economy. The US should also agree to a UNFCCC workplan for 2011 that identifies specific sources of revenues to fill the fund. The UN Secretary General convened a high level panel this year (which included outgoing White House economic advisor Larry Summers) to identify long-term sources of climate finance.  The panel’s report, released last month, is a good place for this work to start. 

Here in Cancun decisions are ready to go on several issues, from forest protection and adaptation to finance and technology cooperation. Reaching agreement on these fronts, though, will require incremental progress on the larger issues that currently stand in the way of progress. The three actions outlined above will go a long way to break the logjam and unleash progress, convincing the world that the United States is serious about being a constructive player in these negotiations.

 

Solutions Are Within Reach

By Kassie Siegel

Meaningful measures to cut carbon pollution and build a profoundly better world can seem distant in the wake of the disappointment at Copenhagen last year and the recent election of a number of new U.S. congressional representatives who deny the basic science climate change. But progress is within reach. And while no one predicts that necessary, binding and science-based greenhouse pollution reductions will materialize by the end of the Cancun climate summit, progress required to achieve such an agreement in the future will almost certainly be accomplished there and move us one step closer to that end. 

First, progress will be made on furthering a global understanding of the need to reduce carbon dioxide concentrations to below 350 parts per million to avert catastrophic impacts. Already, more than 100 countries have endorsed this goal. More will likely do so in Cancun, and further clarity on what such a goal actually means and pathways to achieving it will be revealed, debated and refined in Cancun.

Second, the negotiations have become a focal point for the growth of a global movement for real change, for climate justice, and it is this grass-roots movement that will ultimately bridge the gap between the scientific imperative for deep and rapid greenhouse pollution reductions and today’s accepted “political reality” in which the biggest polluters still exercise vast power over policy. In Cancun, climate activists from around the world will converge and continue to organize and build the networks that can overcome the astronomical spending by big polluters who aim to obscure the science and impede progress. There is no question that the grassroots movement is far larger, more dynamic and better informed than at any time in the past, and that this will be channeled into political pressure for action.  

Finally, notwithstanding the hollow “Copenhagen Accord,” the centrality of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) itself will be re-affirmed by the very presence of all of the parties attending the meeting in Cancun. The climate crisis is a global problem and there is no substitute for the UNFCCC institution. Cancun, even if nothing seemingly concrete comes of it, will hopefully return us to a course toward a global agreement to be achieved next year at the UNFCCC meeting in South Africa.

And as to Chairman Markey’s second question, the good news is that the U.S. already has the tools it needs to convince the world we’re serious about tackling climate change by rapidly and decisively reducing greenhouse pollution.  We are incredibly fortunate to have the strongest and best domestic environmental laws in the world, and they can be used today to successfully reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Foremost among these laws is the Clean Air Act, which has a proven track record of effectively and efficiently reducing air pollution. The Clean Air Act works.  For four decades, this seminal law has protected the air we breathe, saved thousands of lives each year and generally improved public health. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the economic benefits of Clean Air Act regulation have exceeded the costs by about 42 times. Although it was written decades ago, the Clean Air Act can be deployed today without changes to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse pollution, as described in detail here.

Moreover, while the need for ratification by two-thirds of the U.S. Senate for a traditional treaty to take effect is often cited as a barrier to emissions reduction commitments by the U.S. in the international talks, the fact is that the president has several sources of legal authority to negotiate an international emissions reduction agreement without a traditional treaty, as discussed more here

Thus, with leadership from the president and from those in Congress who acknowledge the science and recognize the gravity of the situation, rapid forward progress on climate can quickly become reality. The president and the EPA should move forward boldly with the greenhouse pollution reductions they have already begun under the Clean Air Act, and should expand their efforts to utilize all of the Clean Air Act’s successful programs, including setting a national pollution cap of no more than 350 parts per million for carbon dioxide. Congress should reject all attempts to gut the Clean Air Act by exempting greenhouse emissions, whether in the form of standalone attacks on EPA authority or as part of climate legislation. While a climate bill is long overdue, it must build upon, and not roll back, our existing successful foundation of environmental law. All that’s needed to convince the world we are not in denial about climate change is political courage and leadership from the president and his supporters in Congress.

 

Evidence Shows U.S. In Denial

By Henry Derwent

It gives me no pleasure at all to say this, but I fear the truth is that for most other delegations attending Cancun, it will be impossible to counter the clear evidence that the US is in denial, and is not likely to come out of it any time soon. 

And without action by the US, there is little chance of serious action by anyone else, at a scale that is relevant to the problem we face.  The two biggest greenhouse-gas emitting nations are the US and China.  Say what you like about China's basic argument that it belongs in the developing country camp rather than the developed country one, no-one can ignore the extraordinary efforts that the Chinese are making to reduce the energy and carbon intensity of their ballooning economy.  While it is right to insist that these effort are measured in a way that encourages trust, the force of the argument is undermined when the country doing the insisting has no obvious means or deliverable plans for meeting such emissions reduction promises as it has made, against a background of its emissions continuing to rise. 

We are, for the moment, back in the position where the best thing for the US to do is stay out of the way of such slight progress at the UN as may be possible without them. There is help that can be offered by making available to the UN process the resources, examples and clear thinking that always characterises US contributions to international debates, though concentrating on the possibilities for expanding US jobs will not go down very well in this forum.  Trying to drive parts of the process, however, risks making matters worse.  The most important task the US can perform now is sort out a domestic situation that seems to be uniquely hostile to taking action, whether regulatory, taxpayer-funded or price-based, to cut emissions.

 

No Holiday in the Sun

By Joe Mendelson

In early December the next round of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) negotiations will take place.  The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) will be sending a delegation to Cancun, Mexico, to advocate for a fair, ambitious, and binding international climate treaty. The venture will be anything but a holiday in the sun.  

Last year in Copenhagen, Denmark, the prospects of a new climate treaty were dealt a significant blow when countries failed to meet the world’s expectations and completion of a final climate treaty never materialized.  In place of a treaty, the countries completed a political agreement called the Copenhagen Accord. While the Accord managed to put global warming pollution reduction pledges from both developed and developing countries on the table, the agreement was simply taken note of by the UNFCCC as a voluntary agreement and lacks the legal standing of a binding and enforceable treaty.  As result, there is need for the Cancun meeting to build back confidence that all nations are working in the negotiations toward achieving a global climate deal in 2011.

From the NWF perspective, there are three critical things that must happen to consider Cancun a success:

  • #1 – The U.S and China Must Stop Their Public Shouting Match Over Climate.

Together, the G2 account for around 50% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Simply put, there is no solution to the climate crisis unless both the U.S. and China agree to reduce their global warming pollution. Under the Copenhagen Accord both countries made pledges to reduce their emissions. The U.S. pledged to reduce its emissions 17% from 2005 by 2020 and China pledged to lower its carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 40-45% by 2020 compared to 2005 levels. While these Accord pledges are inadequate to keep global warming below the critical 2 degrees Celsius, they did represent some progress. 

Since making those pledges, however, the U.S. and China have engaged in a downward spiral of verbal accusations on a number of issues ranging from currency valuation to the legality of renewable energy subsidies to how the world handles North Korea. The increasingly hot rhetoric has bled over into the climate negotiations with loud public squabbles over the meaning of the emission reduction promises and other pledges made as part of the Copenhagen Accord.  

For Cancun to succeed, both countries need to take their disagreements out of the headlines and focus their energy at the negotiating table to figure out how both countries can move together to solve the climate crisis. If Cancun remains nothing more than a forum for a U.S. – China spat, the treaty negotiations may be derailed for good. The countries have already laid the groundwork for cooperation through a series of memoranda on energy and climate and both sides would be wise to remember it. 

  • #2 – The U.S. Needs to Come Clean About Its Ability to Meet  its 17% Emissions Reduction Target

Unfortunately, the U.S. Congress’ failure to pass comprehensive climate and energy legislation has created uncertainty throughout the world as to whether the U.S. will be able to meet its Copenhagen pledge. It has also raised doubts as to the ability of the U.S. to formalize those pledged reductions into final decisions in Cancun.  This “trust gap” hangs over the treaty negotiations and threatens any progress.

The U.S. needs to confront this dynamic. It should tell the world about some of the significant steps it has taken to reduce its greenhouse gas emission despite the failure to pass comprehensive legislation. Using authority already provided from Congress, as confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. has taken concrete efforts under the Clean Air Act to start tackling its global warming pollution.  The most prominent step is the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) use of the law to reduce emissions from the U.S. automobiles and trucks sector.

Trumpeting this progress, however, is not enough to bridge the “trust gap.”  Many in Congress are threatening to remove EPA’s ability to use the Clean Air Act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and this is making further progress harder. The U.S. has to tell the global community that the current domestic political situation makes it difficult for the country to clearly articulate how it will get to 17% by 2020.  This tact might not win a lot of new friends, but it would help build trust by showing the U.S. is being open and transparent in its negotiating.

  • #3 – Complete the Deal on Several Key Aspects of a Treaty

While the Copenhagen meeting did not yield a final climate treaty, the negotiations did make significant progress in a number of key areas on how a treaty would work. In Cancun, countries should complete these aspects of the deal.  Agreements are within reach on how countries can reduce the 15% of global emissions from deforestation (an issue known as REDD+http://www.forestjustice.org/the-issue/redd/), how financial resources can be provided to make developing countries more resilient in the face of the most serious impacts of climate change, and how all countries can benefit from, and have access to, clean energy technologies. The U.S. should not stand in the way of wrapping up of these agreements with final decisions in Cancun. Completing these building blocks would provide the energy boost needed to move the negotiations forward to South Africa in 2011.

 

Talks Set to Further Local, Global Solutions to Climate Change

By Andrew Deutz

To the naked eye, expectations are low for the United Nation’s annual climate change conference beginning today in Cancún, Mexico. There is little question that last year’s Copenhagen meeting left behind a bruised UN process, which was exacerbated by the subsequent failure of the U.S. Congress to pass climate legislation.  

 So let’s be clear – this year is about getting a few base hits to restore confidence in the international negotiating process on climate change, rather than swinging for the bleachers.

We do still want a comprehensive international agreement on climate that will limit warming below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), but that is not on offer this year. Instead, we are looking for a “balanced package” of decisions on the lowest hanging fruit, including:

  1. a decision that establishes the parameters of the international system called REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation),
  2. a decision that explicitly recognizes the contribution of ecosystem-based approaches to climate adaptation,
  3. a financing decision that starts a process to create the “Green Fund” envisioned by the Copenhagen Accord;
  4. a forest-sector decision that closes the loopholes in forest carbon accounting under the Kyoto rules, and
  5. a process decision that extends the mandate of the negotiating process so we can eventually get to a comprehensive, legally binding agreement.  

These are the “building blocks” for success in the official process in Cancún. Each of those individual elements is within reach, but we will have to watch out for the spoilers, who will seek to hold back movement on individual elements simply to block overall progress or to gain leverage on specific, unrelated issues. So, there are no “done deals” yet.

 Just as important to the formal negotiations now are the parallel processes that have emerged since Copenhagen. Given the frustration with the multilateral process involving 190 countries, smaller, opt-in processes have sprung up where we think there are opportunities to make significant progress to advance our key issues. We’ll be paying equal attention to those as well.  

“Fast-Start Finance” is one of the critical areas for success in Cancún. Developing countries are looking for evidence that donor countries are meeting their Copenhagen commitments. Those funds are not channeled under the convention; they were intended as a financial bridge until the next international agreement is in place. The Nature Conservancy has done an analysis showing that about $12 billion of the promised $30 billion is now in the disbursement pipeline.

We are also closely tracking the “REDD+ Partnership,” encouraging it to evolve into an effective coalition for furthering REDD readiness and pilot-project implementation in developing countries as well as a forum for sharing lessons about REDD implementation and finance.  

And we are supporting the development of a similar partnership on adaptation to accelerate implementation and lesson-learning.

And, of course, we are encouraging countries and others to make unilateral announcements for action on the ground. This is where having the COP in a country where The Nature Conservancy has a strong presence makes a huge difference. Our Mexico team is lining up two major announcements.  

The first is the announcement of a “Regional Climate Change Plan” between the three state governments of the Yucatan Peninsula, which will include the commitment to develop a regional REDD program. The second is the announcement of a “Declaration for Conservation and Climate Change Adaptation” along the MesoAmerican Reef involving the governments of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras.  

These events underscore an important message: while progress is still possible – albeit lamentably slow – in the official UN process, there are plenty of innovative things happening. Leaders aren’t waiting for an international agreement and The Nature Conservancy is actively facilitating real work on the ground and in the water.  

So, if you happen to be standing in Cancún looking out at the ocean, the evidence would be right in front of you – in the form of the conservation and adaptation partnership being formed by the four coastal countries – and right behind you – in the form of the REDD+ partnership being formed by the three governors.

The Nature Conservancy’s delegation will be here in Cancún for the next two weeks working closely within and outside the negotiations. Cancun is not going to be a vacation by any means, though waiting in long UN security lines in the tropical warmth will be a vast improvement over the last two Decembers we spent freezing in Poznan, Poland and Copenhagen, Denmark.

 

Aviation’s Lesson for Cancun: The Real Thing? 

By Nancy Young, Vice-President, Environmental Affairs, Air Transport Association of America

As I packed my bags for the climate negotiations in Cancun, I looked through some of the photos I took during last year’s talks in Copenhagen. One of them sports a Coca-Cola ad with the unofficial theme for the 2009 event emblazoned on it – “Hopenhagen.” That I have not yet seen such a pet phrase for the Cancun talks bodes well in my view. While maybe benefitting from a dollop of hope, a matter as critical as climate change, which actually is a broader dialogue about sustainability (the balancing of economic, social and environmental needs), must be grounded first in reality. If the Cancun talks are so grounded, the broader climate talks may make real, meaningful progress. Perhaps the tremendous progress we have made in international aviation can suggest a way forward.

In October of this year, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the United Nations body charged with setting standards and recommended practices for international aviation, adopted an Assembly Resolution containing a framework for aviation and climate change. Building on the results of ICAO’s High Level Meeting in October 2009, the Resolution includes five essential framework elements: targets, measures, rules of engagement on market-based measures, means to consider special needs of developing States and acknowledgment of government and industry roles. While some aspects were tagged for further work, the framework is solid.     

The 190 States that are members to ICAO got to this point the same way the 193 States participating in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) need to get there, by building on previous progress and addressing the real issues in a balanced way. With aviation contributing only 2 percent of man-made carbon dioxide (CO2) while contributing 8 percent of the world’s GDP, few can argue that aviation’s current CO2 share is out of control. Yet some in the ICAO talks sought steep cut-backs from today’s levels, a move that would greatly harm an already troubled industry and likely shift more people into their cars – by far a less carbon-efficient mode of travel, particularly on longer trips. By focusing on the real concern – the potential for growth of aviation CO2 emissions over time – ICAO was able to make progress, adopting a fuel efficiency target through 2020 and a target for carbon neutral growth from 2020.

The ICAO Member States also recognized that aviation has a strong record of fuel- and carbon- efficiency improvements and that the best way to continue this progress is through continuing investments in technology, operations, infrastructure and sustainable alternative aviation fuels. ICAO’s Assembly Resolution speaks to these measures and the critical contributions that both industry and governments must make to them. And while recognizing that market-based measures can play a role in meeting aviation’s targets, the ICAO Assembly also recognized that such measures cannot be applied with abandon. To minimize the prospects for trade wars and siphoning away from aviation the funds it needs to invest in further improvements, there must be rules for applying such measures. Finally, although not fully settled, ICAO is looking at the maturity of countries’ aviation markets as a potential means of meeting the dual objectives of addressing the special needs of certain developing States while minimizing the competitive distortion that would come from blanket exemptions to all developing States.

Undoubtedly, with a broader array of issues, industries and climate instruments to address, the job the climate negotiators have in Cancun is more difficult than the job the countries have had in further fleshing out the framework for aviation and climate at ICAO. But just as ICAO’s 2009 High Level Meeting results provided a stepping stone for the 2010 ICAO Assembly Resolution, the Copenhagen Accord can serve as a stepping stone for Cancun. The UNFCCC negotiators should endorse the work that ICAO has done for aviation and take lessons from it for its broader mission. Reality-based negotiations, with a dollop of hope. Perhaps I’ll get a chance to snap a photo of the traditional Coca-Cola sign in Cancun – The Real Thing.

3 Reasons Why the U.S. Should Engage in Cancun

By Jennifer Morgan

While progress on climate change was distressingly slow—both at home and abroad—this past year, there are still many reasons why we must move forward with an international climate agreement. The next two weeks will likely show whether the world is ready to turn the corner and move in a more productive direction on this issue.

Certainly, no one expects a major breakthrough in Cancun, but progress is possible and the United States can do its part by being part of the solution. (See WRI’s President Jonathan Lash’s editorial on four keys to the Cancun talks.)

Here are three reasons why the United States should engage in Cancun:

  1. Clean energy markets are open.
    The demand for energy is growing worldwide, and so are opportunities to get into the clean energy marketplace. In 2009, China became the world's leader in energy consumption; the United States ranked second; while India came in fourth.

    According to the International Energy Agency, global investment in clean energy will likely reach $5.7 trillion from 2010 to 2035. This year, Ernst & Young rated China as the most attractive country for renewable energy investment, ahead of the United States.

    If the United States wants to be a leader in renewable energy—and take advantage of the opportunities and jobs that clean energy holds—it should be helping move the world to lower-carbon energy and drive up investment in renewable sources.

  2. Science says we can’t wait.
    Over the past year, the world witnessed multiple destructive weather events that will only become more common and extreme as the impacts of climate change grow. These events, like the Pakistan floods, Russian wildfires, and record heat waves in the eastern United States, are consistent with climate change models.

    Last week, the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) along with several other groups, including WRI, released a new report on the gap between countries’ pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions and what the science says is needed. The report states that even if the most ambitious emissions pledges from the Copenhagen Accord are realized, the world will still have a shortfall of about 5 gigatons of GHGs to prevent global temperatures from increasing less than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Put another way, these pledges would only reduce GHGs by 60 percent of what’s needed.

    Carbon emissions are global, so we need global action to tackle this issue.

  3. The world is watching.
    The collapse of federal climate and energy legislation has left many countries wondering if the United States is serious about reducing its emissions. Now the world is watching to see how the United States responds. Even without a climate bill, the United States can move forward with real reductions in carbon emissions. As a report by WRI shows, using existing EPA authority and state action, the United States can come close to its declared target of 17 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2020 (compared to 2005 levels).

    To show that the United States is serious, President Obama should re-affirm the U.S. commitment to its target of a 17 percent target.

    As the second largest producer of carbon emissions (behind China), the United States has an opportunity – and a global responsibility– to shift to a low carbon pathway. In doing so, we can demonstrate global leadership and make it clear that we understand the urgency of tackling climate change.

The fact is the global warming is happening and its dangerous impacts are already being felt. No amount of wishful thinking will make it go away.

Hopefully, by the conclusion of the Cancun talks, negotiators will be able to show real progress on the key issues and get on track for an international climate agreement. (See my related Q&A on what to expect in Cancun.)

Talks Set to Further Local, Global Solutions to Climate Change
 
To the naked eye, expectations are low for the United Nation’s annual climate change conference beginning today in Cancún, Mexico. There is little question that last year’s Copenhagen meeting left behind a bruised UN process, which was exacerbated by the subsequent failure of the U.S. Congress to pass climate legislation.  
 
So let’s be clear – this year is about getting a few base hits to restore confidence in the international negotiating process on climate change, rather than swinging for the bleachers.
 
We do still want a comprehensive international agreement on climate that will limit warming below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), but that is not on offer this year. Instead, we are looking for a “balanced package” of decisions on the lowest hanging fruit, including:

1.) a decision that establishes the parameters of the international system called REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation),
2.) a decision that explicitly recognizes the contribution of ecosystem-based approaches to climate adaptation,
3.) a financing decision that starts a process to create the “Green Fund” envisioned by the Copenhagen Accord;
4.) a forest-sector decision that closes the loopholes in forest carbon accounting under the Kyoto rules, and
5.) a process decision that extends the mandate of the negotiating process so we can eventually get to a comprehensive, legally binding agreement.  
 
These are the “building blocks” for success in the official process in Cancún. Each of those individual elements is within reach, but we will have to watch out for the spoilers, who will seek to hold back movement on individual elements simply to block overall progress or to gain leverage on specific, unrelated issues. So, there are no “done deals” yet.
 
Just as important to the formal negotiations now are the parallel processes that have emerged since Copenhagen. Given the frustration with the multilateral process involving 190 countries, smaller, opt-in processes have sprung up where we think there are opportunities to make significant progress to advance our key issues. We’ll be paying equal attention to those as well.  
 
“Fast-Start Finance” is one of the critical areas for success in Cancún. Developing countries are looking for evidence that donor countries are meeting their Copenhagen commitments. Those funds are not channeled under the convention; they were intended as a financial bridge until the next international agreement is in place. The Nature Conservancy has done an analysis showing that about $12 billion of the promised $30 billion is now in the disbursement pipeline.
 
We are also closely tracking the “REDD+ Partnership,” encouraging it to evolve into an effective coalition for furthering REDD readiness and pilot-project implementation in developing countries as well as a forum for sharing lessons about REDD implementation and finance.  
 
And we are supporting the development of a similar partnership on adaptation to accelerate implementation and lesson-learning.
 
And, of course, we are encouraging countries and others to make unilateral announcements for action on the ground. This is where having the COP in a country where The Nature Conservancy has a strong presence makes a huge difference. Our Mexico team is lining up two major announcements.  
 
The first is the announcement of a “Regional Climate Change Plan” between the three state governments of the Yucatan Peninsula, which will include the commitment to develop a regional REDD program. The second is the announcement of a “Declaration for Conservation and Climate Change Adaptation” along the MesoAmerican Reef involving the governments of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras.  
 
These events underscore an important message: while progress is still possible – albeit lamentably slow – in the official UN process, there are plenty of innovative things happening. Leaders aren’t waiting for an international agreement and The Nature Conservancy is actively facilitating real work on the ground and in the water.  
 
So, if you happen to be standing in Cancún looking out at the ocean, the evidence would be right in front of you – in the form of the conservation and adaptation partnership being formed by the four coastal countries – and right behind you – in the form of the REDD+ partnership being formed by the three governors.
 
The Nature Conservancy’s delegation will be here in Cancún for the next two weeks working closely within and outside the negotiations. Cancun is not going to be a vacation by any means, though waiting in long UN security lines in the tropical warmth will be a vast improvement over the last two Decembers we spent freezing in Poznan, Poland and Copenhagen, Denmark.

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