Tag Archives: environment

A window of opportunity opens in the international climate talks

Since the collapse of the 2009 Copenhagen conference, much of what has gone on at the negotiating sessions of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has slipped off the radar of both public and political attention. But a new chapter in the international climate change negotiations begins this year – and could be a unique moment in efforts to craft international agreement on how the world will collectively attempt to slow global climate change.

This week, the Durban Platform working group (ADP) is convening in Bonn, Germany, for the first of three meetings in 2013, moving in earnest towards its 2015 deadline to agree a new international treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol and enter into force in 2020. But while the ADP negotiating process had been launched at the 2011 Durban conference, its progress last year was dogged by deep conflict over how to organise its work, partly in view of substantively similar issues being discussed in parallel negotiating processes, and thus resulting in disagreement over the right procedural ‘home’ for substantive discussions.

Two other sets of processes – on the fate of the Kyoto Protocol’s second commitment period, and on ‘Long-term Cooperative Action’ (LCA) – were brought to a conclusion at last year’s Doha conference and streamlined into existing institutions and bodies. Thus, now free of the procedural morass that characterised UNFCCC negotiations in 2012, the ADP process that unfolds over the next three years represent what may be seen as a contingent moment in the history of the UN climate negotiating process, where fundamental questions over the design and scope of an international agreement are up for grabs in a way and manner perhaps unseen since the beginning of the initial intergovernmental negotiations at the end of the 1980s.

The 2013 UNFCCC meeting on the ADP in Bonn, Germany. Credit; UNFCCC/flickr

Around the rooms and corridors of the climate negotiations, an oft-heard phrase is that ‘context shapes content’, a reference to the way in which previous decisions and agreement carefully sets the boundaries of what can be agreed substantively at any given session. In 2013, with the Kyoto and LCA negotiating tracks no longer defining the main focus for negotiations, the context for the ADP is dramatically different than it was a year ago, free to stretch its legs and begin to chart a way forward without being accused of prejudging decisions taking place in the other negotiating tracks.

This is, therefore, a tremendously febrile moment, fertile for new ideas and approaches that have been buzzing around the past few years from think tanks, NGOs and academia, to finally make it into the substance of a new intergovernmental agreement. It is a moment that can be a profoundly creative one, with a bit more space to explore and imagine different ways of proceeding. And it is, most importantly, a unique moment, one where the procedural constraints that so tightly structure the negotiating process have been momentarily relaxed. Both previous ‘big bang’ moments for the UNFCCC process – Kyoto in 1997, and Copenhagen in 2009 – were directed by negotiating mandates that had relatively clear parameters, even if these were contested by some. Agreement on the Kyoto Protocol had been guided by the 1995 Berlin Mandate that limited binding emission reductions to developed countries; and the attempt at a new agreement in Copenhagen had a full-blown agenda specified in the 2007 Bali Action Plan.By contrast, the ADP mandate is relatively non-prescriptive, simply setting out a goal for a legal instrument to be agreed by 2015 and an interim process to raise mitigation ambition in advance of this legal instrument coming into force in 2020.

The co-chairs of the ADP process, for their part, recognise that the carefully-crafted ambiguity of their mandates provide an opportunity for negotiators to reflect on the very purpose of an international agreement, and not just its content and form. Questions that they have asked negotiators to address in forthcoming discussions are strikingly open-ended: “How would the agreement be designed to ensure durability and flexibility to respond to changes in national circumstances and evolving scientific knowledge over time?”; “How will the principles of the Convention be applied in the new agreement?”; and “Are new arrangements needed in the 2015 agreement to ensure transparency of action and support and, if so, which?”

These, and the other questions that the co-chairs have framed for discussion, are remarkable because they address deeply the core normative issues of the negotiations that have simmered away in recent years but which have been perennially dodged rather than confronted: How should the benefits and burdens of climate action be distributed in a diverse world? In effect, they almost resemble an effort to design the new agreement beginning with a blank sheet of paper, loosened from the norms that have guided the past two decades of the climate negotiations.

As the ADP talks proceed, the institutional machinery of the UNFCCC process rumbles on as the new institutions established in the past two years, especially the Green Climate Fund, find their footing and begin the work of implementing their mandates. And wider developments, most recently the crisis that the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme finds itself in and the collapse of the carbon price, obviously condition the demands and flexibility that governments come to the UNFCCC negotiating table with. Nonetheless, at this particular negotiating venue, we are now entering a moment where there is at least the space for far more creativity and innovation than what the memory of recent disappointments might suggest.

In the years since Copenhagen, those inside and outside the political drama of what goes on at the UNFCCC process have come to recognise the multilevel, multilayered nature of global climate action, where an intergovernmental treaty is just one, and perhaps not even the most central, element. But some kind of binding international agreement still remains the political lodestar for many, and the ADP’s 2015 deadline is now the date that looms on the horizon. Many have bemoaned the glacial, circular and halting pace of progress in the UN climate negotiations. The next three years – in a negotiating context wholly distinct from previous ones – may present a unique opportunity to break that mould.

Originally posted at Politics in Spires on 2 May 2013

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Happy birthday to the Montreal Protocol!

The Montreal Protocol marks its 25th anniversary. Credit: UNEP

Happy 25th birthday to the “perhaps the single most successful environmental agreement to date”! On 16 September 1987, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was signed, and rapidly became the symbol of what global cooperation on environmental issues could achieve. But as symbols come to represent particular possibilities and narratives in world politics, they also legitimate and justify these, and the Montreal Protocol is no exception. Success on addressing ozone depletion has been seen to hold lessons – then and now – for art and craft of global environmental politics, with climate change being one of the best examples of this.

In a post to mark this anniversary, I reflect on some of these longer legacies and lessons of the Montreal model for the conduct and history of international climate politics, which has unfolded in the shadow of Montreal’s success – for better or worse. The two paragraphs are below, and you can find the full version at either the Politics in Spires or Responding to Climate Change sites:

“In June, the international environmental community gathered at the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development set for hard-fought negotiations on sustainable development. This occurred with the backdrop of decades of questionable progress on global environmental issues like deforestation, biodiversity and climate change.

“Old hands lamented the missed opportunities and false dawns in the years since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. Rio+20 needed to be a turning point — seen as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to find a new paradigm for sustainable development and kickstart a transition towards ‘green growth’. But while Rio+20 marked the marquee environmental summit of 2012, another much quieter – and perhaps more significant – anniversary takes place in a few days’ time, one that does much to tell us about the environmental malaise that we find ourselves in.”

Find the full post at either Politics in Spires or Responding to Climate Change.

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The past as present on climate change (Notes from the Bangkok climate talks)

Last week’s session of the UN climate change negotiations that I attended in Bangkok, Thailand, certainly didn’t make for very good headlines: “feud”, “stall”, “division”, “bickering” and “deadlock” being common descriptions. The disdain of one report is barely hidden in its opening lines:

“Nineteen years after the world started to take climate change seriously, delegates from around the globe spent five days talking about what they will talk about at a year-end conference in South Africa. They agreed to talk about their opposing viewpoints”

It certainly didn’t seem like a very productive use of time when the agenda over what to actually negotiate about wasn’t agreed until the last evening (particularly for the technical experts who had little to do but twiddle thumbs in the meantime). But 3 days of deadlock over the meeting agenda is perhaps unsurprising because this divergence of views is as much about what to do now, as it is about what road it is that has been travelled on to get here. And where we’ve come from tells us quite a bit about where we are going, or want to go.

In this specific part of the negotiating process (the Ad-Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action; AWG-LCA), competing draft agendas took their starting points from two related, but different places. One draft, prepared by the chair, focused on the elements of what was agreed to at last December’s Cancun summit; the other, prepared by the G77 and China coalition, focused more expansively on the areas set out in the agreement made at the 2007 Bali conference (which was intended to culminate at the 2009 Copenhagen conference).

This debate about history (i.e. are we taking our lead from Cancun or Bali) sets out different tasks to address. An agenda based on Cancun turns to various questions of how to design new institutions for adaptation support and technology, and how to ensure some common framework for monitoring and keeping track of global mitigation actions. But an agenda that uses the original Bali point of reference puts priority on what actions developed countries are going to be taken to bring down their greenhouse gas emissions, as well as ‘enhanced’ action on adaptation and finance issues.

Perhaps a historical footnote to current negotiations lies some 15 years ago, in the negotiations that resulted in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. That only reached a climax at that particular point in time, because the task to agree on a legal instrument that included quantified emission reduction commitments had been agreed to at the 1995 Berlin conference, in what became known as the Berlin Mandate. The Mandate set out that the focus of negotiations would be on the emission reduction commitments of developed countries; and over the next two years, as the USA tried to force a discussion on the commitments of developing countries, this was resolutely resisted by developing countries who pointed to the Mandate’s limited scope.

Imperfect as any historical analogy might be, there are parallels here in the justifications that developing countries present for continuing to turn to the Bali agreement as the mandate for the current set of negotiations: “We are negotiating about x, and x only, because we agreed to this a few years ago.” The fear expressed by developing countries is that the larger vision of Bali will be subsumed by the specifics of Cancun, and that the latter will be the ‘ceiling’ to collective global action on climate change. The extent to which the recent Cancun Agreements mesh with the earlier Bali Action Plan is what underlies apparently circular and procedural disagreements on the agenda – resolved in some way by the finessing of diplomatic language on the agenda that was indeed agreed, but which will remain alive for the rest of this year. Watch this space.

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What Obama hasn’t done on climate change

Environmental policymaking in the US is getting a real battering by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives as it debates budget plans – taking an axe to the powers and funding of the main regulatory body, the EPA, as well as other environmental agencies; and cutting the tiny amount of US funding to the IPCC.

And as the lead US envoy on the climate negotiations starts continues to dial down expectations for the year-end UN summit, this year in Durban, South Africa, whatever happened to Obama’s 2008 victory declaration to address one of the greatest challenges of our lifetime, “a planet in peril”?

Well, as I’ve posted a year ago, the Obama administration has had to face certain structural conditions and ideas that circumscribe his freedom of movement, conditions that are easy to forget about. But the bluntness of a post-Cancun summary report on the state of international climate policy from the Heinrich Boll Foundation still struck me in its comparison between the Obama and George W. Bush administrations:

“In practice, climate diplomacy is thus facing a similar challenge as during the eight long years of George W. Bush’s presidency, after Bush had withdrawn the United States from negotiations on the Kyoto Protocol in 2001. The overriding question again is: How can international climate policy move forward without the world’s historic largest emitter and the last remaining superpower?”

This might not be completely fair. At the very least, there’s a profound moral difference between Obama and Bush in their entire attitude to climate change and what they have sought to accomplish. But principled preferences and wish-lists aside, the difference between these two administrations in their impact on the rising pace of global greenhouse gas emissions seems to be pretty negligible. For those of us who thought that substantive global climate action was a matter of waiting out the Bush years, this is pretty sobering stuff.

A year ago, when Obama chose to prioritize healthcare reform and punted climate and energy legislation into the long grass, I thought that the best hope would only next come after 2012 – in a second Obama term, if that materialized. With a Republican House, that seems more and more like the case. And whether that puts climate diplomacy into the freezer, to wait for yet another US presidential election cycle, well…

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The totemic importance of the Kyoto Protocol

Sometimes no news is good news – for much of the immediate past it has seemed that any news coming out of the climate change negotiations is invariably that of deadlock, breakdown and impasse. So somewhat true to form, the main headline out of a relatively low-key first week at the Cancun UNFCCC meeting was dispute over how the last agreement – the 1997 Kyoto Protocol – will be linked to a future one. Japan’s blunt assertion that it will not accept an extension of the Protocol has brought this issue of the form of agreement front and centre.

Japan’s hope, much like that of the US, is for a single climate change agreement to take forward national commitments and obligations, rather than an extension of Kyoto into a second phase after the current one ends in 2012. But to do so runs counter to the preferences of many developing countries, who are still waiting for promises and pledges made in the Kyoto Protocol about finance, technology transfer, or rich-country emission reductions, to be fully realized. And it is in this sense that the Kyoto Protocol is ‘totemic’ – important not so much for its substantive accomplishments, but because of the values and principles embodied in it that developing countries fear will be eroded in a new agreement that is not legally linked to the Protocol.

Fundamentally, this is the developed-developing country distinction, and with it, the differentiation of responsibilities on how to take action on climate change. These distinct responsibilities principally argue that developed countries bear the burden of cutting emissions and providing the financial and technological support for poorer countries both to cut their own emissions and adapt to a changing climate. Equally, however, as I’ve noted before, is a fuzzy ambiguity about the extent to which these different responsibilities are based on historical emissions or contemporary capabilities. Interpretations that favour the former continue to hold considerable sway in the perceptions of developing country negotiators.  (In this regard, Kyoto has also been totemic for many EU countries, where after the US withdrawal in 2001, concerns about the actual effectiveness of the Protocol were overridden by the need to bring the agreement into force as a way of showing that ‘we are doing something’).

'We love the Kyoto Protocol' exhibit at COP16, Cancun - Credit: Greenpeace

For some, it can seem hugely frustrating that an agreement that has arguably made only a marginal difference to the actual reduction of greenhouse gas emissions continues to cast a shadow over the future. An Oxfam blogger sees resolving this question as “tedious housework”, and Michael Levi, from the Council for Foreign Relations, calls this the ‘Kyoto circus’ and argues that it is high time it be abandoned:

“[I]nsisting that Kyoto be extended as a condition for following through on the Copenhagen Accord is entirely inappropriate. The Accord is a political deal among national leaders, and there are only two references to Kyoto in it.”

One of them, he notes, “can be (and often is) read as indicating that Copenhagen Accord commitments are the successors to Kyoto ones.

“So let’s be clear about what’s going on. A balanced political deal was made at Copenhagen. Many countries that made that deal are now insisting that they’ll only follow through on their side of the bargain if something deliberately excluded from the original deal – new Kyoto commitments – happens. That’s wrong.”

But “can be (and often is) read as” isn’t the same as “is”. The Copenhagen Accord was nonbinding, as stressed by the major developing countries involved, and this isn’t an insignificant point.

Perhaps whether disagreement over whether the Copenhagen Accord effectively succeeds Kyoto reveals, once again, divergences in interpretations where each sees what they want to see. For the US, for whom any commitment on emission reductions has to come outside the Kyoto framework (as they are non-signatories to this framework), Copenhagen has indeed superseded Kyoto. For the major developing countries, however, I suspect, shedding the protective blanket of Kyoto would have never been meaningfully plausible, for the principled point about differentiated responsibilities is as important to them as it is to some of the smaller, but strident developing country voices. (To this end, I don’t think that this is as much about preserving carbon trading markets as Andy Revkin thinks it is)

Ultimately, if Kyoto is to remain a totemic part of the developing-country platform in these climate negotiations, it reflects one basic virtue: that as the one prior binding agreement, it provides a backstop and prevents a slippery slope on the issue of industrialised-country obligations. If there is a struggle over a new agreement, unassociated with Kyoto, it is because a prospective new agreement does not advance, or at the very least safeguard, these obligations of the rich vis-a-vis the rest.

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Natural resources: confronting the full cost

Biodiversity and climate change are often kept in their separate boxes. But there’s a common thread expressed in the US military’s attention to renewable energy and a major upcoming biodiversity conference: both, in their own ways, serve as powerful reminders that the true cost of resources we consume is barely reflected in the headline price.

A front-page story in the New York Times tells of the US military’s attempts to slash its fossil fuel usage, as a Marine company in Afghanistan prepares to take renewable energy into a battle zone – solar power replacing diesel and kerosene. The aim is that turning to renewable energy will reduce demand for fossil fuels that have to be trucked in, and thereby reduce the exposure of soldiers to attacks on the fuel convoys.

“Fossil fuel accounts for 30 to 80 percent of the load in convoys into Afghanistan, bringing costs as well as risk. While the military buys gas for just over $1 a gallon, getting that gallon to some forward operating bases costs $400

…Concerns about the military’s dependence on fossil fuels in far-flung battlefields began in 2006 in Iraq, where Richard Zilmer, then a major general and the top American commander in western Iraq, sent an urgent cable to Washington suggesting that renewable technology could prevent loss of life…

…The Marines’ new goal is to make the more peripheral sites sustain themselves with the kind of renewable technology carried by Company I, since solar electricity can be generated right on the battlefield.”

The “fully burdened cost of fuel” is the catchphrase – that the gallon price at the pump is just the beginning and is dwarved by the cost of transport and protection. The tactical objective is striking, too – to make outposts and smaller bases decentralized in energy terms, not having to rely on long lines of supply that create vulnerabilities and make it more difficult to fulfil the mission at hand.

But while militaries are cottoning on to the real cost of their fossil fuel habit, what about the rest of society? In the run up to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) conference later this month, attention is being focused on highlighting the value of ‘ecosystem services’ upon which modern life relies on – and doesn’t pay for. A detailed piece in Environment magazine spells this out:

“The ability of nature to help filter, regulate the release of, and capture and store water allows us to wear blue jeans, drink coffee, and eat a hamburger, but we rarely think about the true origin of the products we use every day…

…Not understanding nature’s role in the products we use means we won’t conserve nature sufficiently; this in turn will compromise our ability to access products we need, or we will have to find sometimes costly alternatives for what nature could otherwise provide to us. Incorporating the full suite of costs and benefits into decision-making means evaluating all costs and benefits associated with nature, too.”

Felled rainforests and the produced timber may as count as economically productive activity – what’s been sorely missing so far is a sense of the real cost of deforestation, and the relative balance between the two. For a start, a report due out shortly by The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) project looks to quantify just how much nature is worth to the global economy: something in the range of $5 trillion. How’s that for a global economic shock?

The natural environment and ecosystems can be pretty resilient things, able to absorb a good deal of damage – but resilience doesn’t last infinitely. Testing the limits of our ecosystems could turn out to be a pretty expensive exercise when we squander this endowment and have to pay the full price of replacing these ecosystem services.

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Drill, baby drill: Agreeing with Sarah Palin

The only reason that the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico from the explosion at BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig is the big environmental story of the past fortnight, I’d argue, is because it is within easy reach of TV crews. Journalists can, without too much hassle, fan out to coastal towns and nature reserves to wait for the oil to start washing ashore as 4,000 barrels of oil continue to seep out of the blown-out well daily.

This is environmentally calamitous and a profound reminder of the consequences of our deepening fossil fuel habit, but beyond that, is also an damning illustration of the fact that it is only a problem because it appears on TV screens and business and environmental columns. If a similar accident happened anywhere outside America’s backyard, would BP be rushing to undertake damage control as desperately?

There will be knock-on effects for the future of offshore drilling in the US – and Arnold Schwarzenegger has already withdrawn support for plans to do so off the Californian coast. But would it not be better to do so, even in places like Alaska’a Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (as Sarah Palin would have it), to open eyes to the cost of that fossil fuel habit?

Because in effect, the costs of meeting the increasing appetite for oil are outsourced, where others meet the social, economic and environmental costs involved – be it in the Niger Delta and the distortions upon the Nigerian economy, or in propping up the Saudi royal family and its rather dangerous brand of Wahabbi Islam. Would it not be morally preferable to meet that demand via drilling off the US coast, rather than in distant lands?

This is the thought-provoking argument made by writer Peter Maass, in a piece a few years ago for the New York Times (hat tip to the NYT’s Andy Revkin):

If the protection of our environment comes at the expense of others, might it be an expression of selfishness rather than virtue? The more we focus on defending our environment, the less we may focus on environments outside our borders; activism can become anesthesia. Domestic restrictions on drilling have had the unintended effect of insulating our tender consciences from the worst impacts of oil extraction. Out of sight, out of mind. For that reason, could it be that drilling rigs within sight of Key West or in a part of Alaska that is an Alamo of conservationism would be a useful thing? Perhaps a few more drilling platforms in our most precious lands and waters would make us understand that the true cost of oil is not posted at the gas pump.

The more general philosophical point at the heart of the issue here is whether we value strangers in distant lands any more than fellow compatriots. What exactly do the responsibilities of nationality mean? And what are the responsibilities we have to strangers, especially in a world where globalised supply and consumption chains create causal links between ourselves and people on the other side of the world? Is a clean environment in our backyard worth more than others’ backyards?

Dabbling in a direct answer is only going to expose my woeful grasp of political theory, so let me restrict myself to a remark, as I began, about how things only matter insofar as they appear on TV screens and in newsprint. At a time when these relationships between distant consumers and distant producers are better understood than ever before, coverage of international issues is on a steady decline, as the media industry faces financially testing times.

The CNN effect still has its day, such as images from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami triggering an outpouring of international fundraising. But as media outlets close their international bureaux, our ‘world news’ relies on a narrowing pool of correspondents, viewpoints and expertise. It makes dramatic international intervention in the absence of compelling ‘national interests’, such as the US in Somalia, or the UK in Sierra Leone, much less likely.

Perhaps we’re lucky, in a way, that tar sands extraction, a source of immense environmental and social dislocation in search of ‘hard’, less easily extracted oil, takes place mainly in Canada. First Nations peoples still face a struggle to draw attention to their cause. But it probably beats being in Nigeria.

Might Sarah Palin’s ‘drill, baby, drill’  not be so far wrong, even if for rather different reasons?

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