Heat and Anxiety: What’s Next for International Climate Change Negotiations?Jan 5th, 2012 | By Aman Chitkara
Elliot Diringer is Executive Vice President of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES). He previously served as Vice President for International Strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, a reporter and editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, Director of Communications and Senior Policy Advisor at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and as Deputy White House Press Secretary under President Bill Clinton. He corresponded with Aman Chitkara via email.
What role does your organization play in the climate change debate, domestically and internationally?
Our aim is to help advance strong policy and action to address the twin challenges of energy and climate change. We work on many fronts to provide solid information and analysis, catalyze on-the-ground action, inform policymakers, and bring stakeholders together to develop consensus solutions. Domestically, we have helped policymakers in more than 30 states address climate and energy issues, and have played a central role in analyzing options, and building support, for stronger action at the federal level. Internationally, our research has contributed to new thinking on the role and direction of the multilateral climate regime, and we regularly convene informal discussions among climate negotiators from key countries.
How do you see a future international climate change framework shaping up? Have we all but given up on a Kyoto-style international agreement of emission reduction targets?
The recent agreement reached in Durban, South Africa, could prove to be a critical turning point in the evolution of the international framework. Fifteen years ago, countries chose a path toward binding international commitments—but for developed countries only. Kyoto produced some good results, but it’s been clear for some time that most developed countries don’t see it as a viable model going forward.
Since Kyoto was negotiated, China has overtaken the United States as the world’s largest annual greenhouse gas emitter, and collectively developing countries now account for 58% of global emissions. The agreement in Durban will keep Kyoto going for a while longer (but with only the European Union and a handful of others committing to emission targets). But it also launches a new round of negotiations toward a new, possibly binding, agreement with developed and developing countries on more equal footing
A new agreement would probably more closely resemble the framework emerging from the Copenhagen and Cancún conferences in 2009 and 2010—with developed countries taking absolute emission targets and developing countries committing to different types of actions.
The US has long refused to make any binding international commitments on climate change unless “major emerging economies” commit to emission reductions. Do you see that stance shifting at Durban given that China and India have both adopted some variants of emission intensity targets?
What the US has advocated is “symmetry” in the legal character of the commitments taken by developed and major developing countries. It has recognized, however, that the specific form or level of those commitments will vary.
At the start of the Obama Administration, the US tabled a proposal in the negotiations for a binding “implementing agreement” that explicitly allowed for different types of commitments—absolute emission targets for developed countries, and quantified “nationally appropriate mitigation actions” for developing countries “whose national circumstances reflect greater responsibility or capability.” This differentiation in the nature of commitments was later reflected in the Copenhagen Accord and the Cancún Agreements, under which more than 80 countries, including all the major economies, have now submitted mitigation pledges. China and India have pledged reductions in emissions intensity, while other major emerging economies have pledged reductions in business-as-usual emissions.
Financing mitigation and adaptation efforts in developing countries is a major challenge when developing an effective strategy to combat climate change. Given the current economic situation, what do you perceive as the short- to medium-term solution to this barrier?
We need more effective ways to mobilize both public and private investment in climate solutions. On the public side, we will continue to rely in the short term on national treasuries to ramp up support for international climate efforts, which is politically challenging under the best of circumstances, and especially so in difficult economic times. Over the longer term, perhaps governments can agree on a dedicated source of climate finance, so that we are not so heavily dependent on annual budget outlays. We believe one option worth exploring is some form of levy on bunker fuels (used in international aviation and shipping).
But public finance will never generate more than a fraction of the enormous investment needed. We are already seeing growing low-carbon investment by the private sector, and we need stronger signals from governments to drive that much higher. By adopting strong climate policies, and ensuring a stable investment environment, developing countries can draw foreign investment and channel private investment domestically into low-carbon pathways.
How relevant are internationally debated targets for peak atmospheric GHG concentration and mean temperature increase to the policymaker and to society?
Long-term goals can help focus attention and action, but they work best if they can be easily grasped and translated into concrete steps. The goal of limiting average warming to 2 degrees Celsius, which was set in Copenhagen and affirmed in Cancún, is something people can understand. And it provides a metric against which collective efforts can be assessed.
But temperature is largely a function of greenhouse gas concentrations, which in turn are largely a function of emissions, so as a guide to on-the-ground action, a temperature goal is of limited value. Agreeing on a peaking year for GHG concentrations could more directly inform policy-making and action. But, insofar as it implies an overall emissions budget, it more directly invokes the question of equity—who gets how much? And for that reason, it is much more difficult to get agreement on.
Copenhagen. Cancun. And now Durban. All these events have gained significant media attention–and anxiety. When and how do you see the focus of climate negotiations shifting from short term to long term solutions, and a transition to a low-carbon sustainable society?
What we are witnessing, I believe, is a gradual reorientation of the climate negotiations. From the start of the Kyoto negotiations, there was a preoccupation with binding commitments, and, consequently, too little effort focused on other ways to strengthen the international effort. We were stuck in a mode of binding-or-nothing—and too often got nothing. While Copenhagen was widely viewed as a failure because it did not deliver a binding agreement (an unrealistic expectation from the start), it actually produced the seeds of a more gradualist approach further advanced in Cancún and Durban.
Binding commitments should remain the goal, because they are the best means of providing the mutual confidence countries need to deliver their strongest possible efforts. But the experience of the past 15 years—and the lessons of other multilateral regimes—suggest that it takes time to get there. Hopefully, the new negotiations launched in Durban will set us on the path.
Feature photo: cc/Tom Harding