Memorandum: New Storylines Emerging From Climate Negotiations

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Kelly Trout
Email: ktrout@foe.org
Phone: 202-222-0722

Memorandum: New Storylines Emerging From Climate Negotiations

WASHINGTON - United Nations climate negotiations will resume in Tianjin, China, on
October 4, 2010. This is the first time formal international climate
negations are taking place in China. Several stories are developing that
you may wish to cover. Friends of the Earth is prepared to provide you
with information and contacts related to each of these stories, should
you decide to pursue them.

Lack of climate legislation in U.S. may lead to less tolerance for U.S. efforts to torpedo Kyoto Protocol

The U.S. remains the only wealthy country that has not ratified the
Kyoto Protocol, the only international instrument related to climate
change that contains legally binding emission reduction targets. The
first period of emission reduction commitments under the Kyoto Protocol
ends in 2012, the point at which, according to the Protocol, a second
commitment period is supposed to start.

Instead of supporting this second commitment period, at the Copenhagen
climate talks in December 2009, the U.S. championed the “Copenhagen
Accord,” a weak, nonbinding document that features national pledges to
reduce emissions that countries individually put forward, regardless of
science, equity, and what national pledges add up to in aggregate. (The
Kyoto Protocol assigns an aggregate and individual mitigation targets
for developed countries, except the U.S.) The U.S. claims not to take a
position on the Kyoto Protocol, but the “pledge-based” or “bottom-up”
approach it has promoted in the Accord is, in practice, incompatible
with a second commitment period for the Protocol and, in effect, is
therefore an attempt to replace the Protocol with a far weaker
substitute.

In the run-up to the Copenhagen summit and in the months afterward,
many countries felt compelled to tolerate U.S. efforts to weaken
international climate policies because they believed this was the only
way to bring the U.S. on board, given the precarious state of U.S.
domestic climate legislation. However, with U.S. legislation now
seemingly off the table for the next few years, it is likely that the
U.S. will come under increased criticism in Tianjin, with the
possibility that many countries will propose moving forward on
mitigation and other aspects of the negotiations without the U.S. This
backlash has already started, as countries have increasingly voiced
concerns about the role of the U.S. in recent months.[1]  For more information, please see the joint NGO analysis, “What Role for the U.S.? A Question for the Rest of the World.”[2]

Lack of climate legislation in U.S. may lead developing countries to buck U.S. demands

The lack of U.S. climate legislation will have another likely effect:
increasing the bargaining power of poor countries. For the past several
years, the United States has acted aggressively with regard to
international climate negotiations to try and win concessions from
developing countries. For example, to compel developing countries to
associate with the Copenhagen Accord, the Obama administration
threatened to withhold climate finance from countries outspoken in their
opposition to it. Obama carried out this threat in the cases of Bolivia
and Ecuador. U.S. Special Climate Envoy Todd Stern has also vigorously
pressed to shift the burden to address climate change onto many
developing countries by calling for an agreement that is “legally
symmetrical” with “the same elements binding on all countries, except
the least developed.”[3] 
The U.S. has especially pushed China to adopt greenhouse gas reduction
commitments, making particular demands about the measurement, reporting,
and verification of its mitigation actions. More recently, the U.S.
articulated that it will block forward movement on establishing a global
climate fund if its demands on mitigation and transparency from
developing countries, especially China, aren’t met. Stern issued a new
ultimatum at the Geneva Dialogue on Climate Finance earlier this month,
saying, “We are not going to move on the Green Fund [a UNFCCC climate
fund to help developing countries adapt to and mitigate climate change]
and the $100 billion [in long-term financing that the U.S. had
previously promised to help deliver]. If the issues that were central to
the Copenhagen Accord that were part of the balance of the Copenhagen
Accord, including mitigation and transparency, don’t also move.”[4]

The U.S.’s bargaining chips in international climate talks have
historically hinged on two promises: the prospect of binding U.S.
emissions cuts and the U.S.’s provision of climate finance.  But the
U.S. has largely lost both of these leverage points. Without the
prospect of U.S. climate legislation passing anytime soon, the Obama
administration has lost much of its credibility on this issue and its
ability to make demands of developing countries. With its recent attempt
in Geneva to hold climate finance hostage to more actions from
developing countries, particularly in the areas of mitigation and
transparency, the U.S. has reinforced its image as a bad faith
negotiator making onerous and unreasonable demands.

China has lower per capita emissions and higher poverty than the U.S., yet is investing much more aggressively in clean energy

As the climate meeting takes place in China, much attention in the U.S.
is likely to be directed toward comparisons of the two countries.
Critics who wish to engage in China bashing for domestic political
purposes may point out that China now produces more total greenhouse gas
emissions than the U.S., implying that China should act first when it
comes to emissions reductions.

However, per capita, the U.S. is still a far larger polluter than China
(19.2 vs. 4.9 metric tons in 2008) and the U.S. has a much greater
economic capacity to act. China is still a developing country. Some
one-third of China’s population lives on less than $2 a day; per capita
GDP in the U.S. is some eight and a half times higher than in China.
Moreover, a significant portion of China’s emissions footprint actually
belongs to developed countries, as a quarter of Chinese emissions come
from producing goods that are exported to, and consumed in, places like
the U.S.[5]
Finally, because carbon dioxide emissions remain in the atmosphere for
decades, a nation’s cumulative (rather than annual) greenhouse gas
emissions are central to determining its responsibility to act. Over the
last century, the U.S. has put far more greenhouse gases into the
atmosphere than China.

Despite this, the Chinese appear to be taking climate change and clean
energy development substantially more seriously than the U.S. on many
levels. For example, an estimated 12 percent of the 2009 stimulus
package in the U.S. is considered green, compared to 34 percent of
China’s 2009 stimulus.[6]

United Steelworkers challenge China’s green development

The United Steelworkers union filed a 5,800-page petition with the U.S.
Trade Representative on September 9, 2010, alleging that China has
violated international trade law by providing subsidies to its clean
energy industry. The Obama administration must decide by October 24 if
it will take the petition forward for further action at the World Trade
Organization (WTO). Although the Steelworkers’ complaint focuses on
China, it also points to the continued failure of the U.S. government to
enact comprehensive climate policies and scale up investment in the
emerging clean energy sector, which will heavily disadvantage the
competitive position of the U.S. and U.S. workers moving forward. 

This move by the U.S. Steelworkers will likely have repercussions in
the UN climate negotiations. The U.S. has harshly criticized China for
its greenhouse gas emissions, yet China is now being attacked for doing
exactly what the U.S. has demanded of it.  The impact of trade measures
on carbon emissions has historically been a hot-button issue.  For
example, in 2009 developing countries criticized the Waxman-Markey bill
passed by the U.S. House of Representatives for its proposed "border
adjustment measure," a tariff on carbon-intensive imports of countries
deemed not to have taken sufficient action on climate change. Moreover,
the Steelworkers’ petition will raise questions about one of the top
priorities of the climate negotiations: climate finance. Funding for
developing countries to transition to clean technologies is part of the
UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which requires wealthy
countries to help developing countries build up locally appropriate,
endogenous clean energy industries. Will industries in developed
countries now launch trade wars as countries make good on their UNFCCC
promises?

It is also important to note that the WTO unduly constrains the ability
of governments to act in the public interest, in this case, to enact
effective climate policies. For example, many existing and proposed
climate-related policies and programs run afoul of WTO rules. President
Obama would surely not acquiesce in the face of trade challenges to
policies designed to protect both U.S. livelihoods and the environment.
Developing countries are certain to point out this contradiction in the
Tianjin negotiations. For a developing country perspective on the
Steelworkers’ petition, and on how the WTO’s subsidies agreement is
prejudiced against developing countries, please see Trade: Beware of U.S. Protectionism by Martin Khor.[7]

A Way Forward

It is clear that domestic politics at this time will not allow the
United States to lead global efforts to tackle climate change. The Obama
administration must stop pretending it can lead. It must cease its
efforts to drag the rest of the world down to its very low level of
ambition, when what the climate crisis demands is far higher ambition
from all developed countries.

In 2007, international climate negotiators developed a solution to
bring the slow-moving U.S. on board with global climate action—a
solution that won the support of the Bush administration. The 2007 Bali
Action Plan included a carve-out for the United States: a special
section (paragraph 1(b)(i)) to ensure that the U.S. would make emissions
reductions (under the UNFCCC’s Long-term Cooperative Action negotiating
track) that were comparable to those made by other wealthy countries
under the Kyoto Protocol negotiating track.

Instead of trying to torpedo the Kyoto Protocol, the U.S. should simply
plug its weak reduction pledge (currently 3-4 percent below 1990 levels
by 2020) into its own special section of the Bali Action Plan while
other developed countries continue with emissions reductions under the
Protocol.  This would allow the world to move forward and avoid the
danger of a gap between Kyoto commitment periods, during which binding
emissions reduction targets for other developed countries could
disappear. The European Union, rather than continuing its strategy of
catering to the U.S., could reemerge as a climate leader and take up the
cause of binding, equitable, and science-based emissions targets.


[1]
See, for example, “U.S. Steps Up Its Effort Against a European System
of Fees on Airline Emissions,” New York Times, September 10, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/10/business/energy-environment/10emit.html.

[2] “What Role for the U.S.? A Question for the Rest of the World.” http://www.twnside.org.sg/title2/climate/pdf/assessments/Bonn_II_U.S._Assessment_11_June_2010.pdf

[3]
U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern Keynote Address As
Prepared May 18, 2010, Brookings Conference-- Energy and Climate Change
2010: Back to the Future, http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Files/events/2010/20100518_energy_clima....

[4] Remarks of Special Climate Envoy Todd Stern in Geneva in September 2010: http://www.state.gov/g/oes/rls/remarks/2010/146821.htm

[5] Briefing by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, July 9, 2008: http://www.tyndall.ac.uk/sites/default/files/tyndallpress09july08.pdf

[6] “Stimulus is Greenest in South Korea and China,” Reuters, Sept. 25, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/25/business/global/25green.html

[7] Khor, Martin. “Watch out for New U.S. Protectionism Abroad,” The China Post, September 15, 2010. http://www.chinapost.com.tw/commentary/the-china-post/special-to-the-china-post/2010/09/15/272607/Watch-out.htm

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Friends of the Earth is the U.S. voice of the world's largest grassroots environmental network, with member groups in 77 countries. Since 1969, Friends of the Earth has fought to create a more healthy, just world.

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