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By Sherry Listgarten

Climate Diplomacy

Uploaded: Jan 5, 2020

It can be difficult to talk about climate change with friends, family, or co-workers, all of whom may have different perspectives. So imagine doing that at the country level, where you are also expected to cooperate to solve the problem. Can countries to work together to address our climate crisis?

After reading about the state of global discussions, I can only hope we are raising a new generation of crack negotiators -- we are going to need them. This is Model UN in real-life, complete with alliances, draft positions, and endless editing and re-editing of texts to gain buy-in. (As just one example, see here.)

I am going to very briefly summarize what’s going on at the global level, since I think it’s interesting and important. It makes me wonder: If the US were as committed a climate leader as Europe, how different would things be? I hope we can begin to answer that question in a year.

Brief backstory
The first “Conference of Parties” (COP1), the UN-sponsored convention on climate, was held in Berlin in 1995. The one held last month in Madrid was the 25th such conference, COP25.

Two years after COP1, in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol was hammered out with emissions agreements and a structure for trading emissions credits. But many countries did not participate (e.g., US, China, India), in part due to a legally binding structure that assessed penalties for missing emissions targets.

In 2009, the Copenhagen Accord resulted in the creation of a “Green Climate Fund” to help vulnerable and developing countries adapt to the changing climate. Initial commitments were made to the tune of about $10 billion by 2014.

In 2015, the Paris Agreement was hammered out, involving nearly all countries due to a much more flexible structure than Kyoto. Commitments to reduce emissions are voluntary and can take a variety of forms. But all parties agree on the severity of the problem, and agree to share data on emissions and to re-evaluate or at least re-communicate commitments every 5-10 years.

What are the Paris commitments?
To give you a sense of the flexibility provided, here are some of the pledges for Paris (all can be found here).

- US: By 2025, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28% from 2005
- EU: By 2030, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% from 1990
- China: By 2030, hit peak emissions, and cut emissions per GDP by 60-65% from 2005
- India: By 2030, reduce greenhouse gas emissions per GDP by 33-35% from 2005

Note that India is not promising to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, just the intensity of its economic growth. Similarly, China is focused on growing GDP and limiting emissions within that context.

Are the Paris pledges enough?

Goals of the Madrid talks
No, the pledges are not enough, which is why a key aspect of the Paris agreement is to re-evaluate and hopefully ratchet up the pledges every 5-10 years.

The science is clear now that there is a big gap between what countries have pledged and what we need to stay below 1.5 C or even 2 C in warming. A recent UN report on the emissions gap states: “Dramatic strengthening of the NDCs (pledges) is needed in 2020. Countries must increase their NDC ambitions threefold to achieve the well below 2°C goal and more than fivefold to achieve the 1.5°C goal”. The current pledges, if all were met, get us to between 2.7 C and 3.7 C warming (an average of 5.8 F) by 2100. One of the primary goals of the December talks in Madrid was to encourage countries to increase their pledges.


Graphic from a budget visualization by the Global Carbon Project

In addition, some important but contentious details of the Paris agreement needed to be worked out in Madrid, particularly around how to exchange carbon credits between countries. Given that some countries have more resources, or more opportunities for reducing emissions than others, these trades can help wealthier countries achieve more reductions while providing funding to less wealthy countries to help them adapt to coming changes. But a poorly designed market can result in skewed incentives and relatively few real-world emissions reductions.

What do countries want?
Unfortunately, while all the countries agreed in principle that they should work to close the emissions gap and design a fair and effective carbon market, little was accomplished due to differing priorities. Here are some examples:

Vulnerable countries. These typically low-lying and poor countries are hardest hit by climate change and are asking for:
- More aggressive emissions reductions from all countries
- Financial assistance for “loss and damage” to their countries
- Carbon markets that do more to reduce real-world emissions, for example by cancelling a portion of all emissions that are exchanged.

Developing countries. These countries say they cannot increase the “ambition” of their pledges without more funding. China and India are among those in this group. These countries believe that those who benefited financially from burning fossil fuels are morally obligated to help others to reduce their emissions, and point to countries like the US, Canada, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and Australia.

US and Europe. These countries (especially the US) want financial contributions to be voluntary. They do not want legal liability for damages. The US also wants to avoid anything that may look like a tax on carbon exchanges, which would require Senate approval.

Australia. Australia wants to use leftover credits from the earlier Kyoto Protocol to meet its pledge. However, these credits are generally considered worthless, with little value in the Kyoto carbon market. Given that China, India, South Korea, and Brazil have amassed many similar credits from Kyoto, allowing their use would decrease the effect of overall pledges by around 25%.

Brazil. Brazil, as host of a huge potential source of carbon credits (the rain forest), has asked to double-count emissions reductions that are traded. That is, it wants credit for the emissions reductions even if it sells credits for those same reductions (e.g., for reducing deforestation) to other countries.

Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia wants compensation for reducing the supply of fossil fuels.

Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay. These cattle-heavy countries want methane emissions to count for just 4x carbon dioxide emissions, rather than the 21x - 28x that others prefer.

And so on.

Is there any hope for these talks?
It’s hard to get almost 200 countries to agree on resolutions, particularly when the playing ground is so uneven and the biggest and wealthiest historical emitter of them all (the US) is loathe to participate, causing other nations in similar situations to question their own more forthcoming stances.

The carbon market is vulnerable to lobbying. While there is general agreement that no trading is better than unfair trading, if Brazil and Australia and others end up drafting compromises and loopholes in the final rules, any results the markets achieve will be watered down.

Emissions reductions and more fundamentally national well-being are at risk due to a lack of adequate, equitable funding. The United States pledged $3B, but transferred only $1B before Trump halted further donations. Our donation is on the order of $3 per capita, much less than virtually every other developed nation. Sweden and Norway are donating $50-$60 per capita, the UK around $20, Canada and Australia around $8. Furthermore, many of those same countries followed up their initial pledges with even larger ones in 2019, as shown in the graphic below from Nature.


Graphic from Nature shows new pledges to the Green Climate Fund. None from the US.

There are several venues in 2020 where progress towards consensus on market design and stronger emissions reductions could be made. The G7 and G20 meetings this year, however, are unlikely to be productive, as they are hosted by countries hostile to the climate discussions (the US and Saudi Arabia, respectively). In fact, Trump has specifically banned climate from the G7 agenda. So what’s left? There will be some UN climate negotiations in June in Bonn, which precede the COP26 in November in Glasgow, where the UK has been a strong proponent of climate negotiations. But with so much left to iron out in a short time, it will be difficult.

How can we make progress?
With global talks going so slowly, how can more countries move more quickly to reduce emissions?

US change in leadership. The current administration is setting back emissions reductions and climate discussions at a critical time. The upcoming election will have a big impact on the outcome of global negotiations.

Unilateral and bilateral actions. The EU took a significant unilateral action at the end of 2019, offering to become carbon-neutral by 2050 and to add a tax on all imported goods from countries without similar pledges. In September they will be meeting with China in Leipzig, with an eye towards an agreement that increases China’s climate ambition.

Financial divestment. If enough large banks and other asset managers divest from fossil fuels, it can have a global impact on emissions that bypasses the slower international negotiations. Climate organizations are putting pressure here with some success.

Technical innovation. More options for reducing emissions would be welcome. It may be easier to share (or copy) technology than to share funding.

My take
I am appalled that the US is not showing more climate leadership and taking more responsibility, given our outsized role in warming and the degree to which we have benefited from fossil fuel use. While I understand our concerns around admitting legal liability and our desire to avoid commitments that require Senate approval, our abdication of our emissions targets and our paltry donations to the Green Climate Fund are embarrassing, not to mention morally remiss and extremely short-sighted.

I would like to see a well-designed carbon market, though I think it may come from a smaller venue than the COPs, such as the EU/China discussions, and grow from there. I also think the financial markets are much more clear-eyed than many of our national leaders, and hope that their evaluation of risks and costs will lead to a more rapid de-funding of fossil fuels than these unwieldy negotiations can manage. That said, I am grateful to all of those who are participating in the global climate discussions, and particularly grateful to the EU for leading in so many ways.

Notes and References

1. You can find a summary of the Paris pledges here, and a good overview of the Paris agreement (from NRDC) here.

2. The most comprehensive writeup of the Madrid talks that I found is here. It has lots of information about the main issues that arose, down to descriptions of text changes. Teens who participate in Model UN should take a look. Below are some quotes from this and other writeups.

Carbon Brief:
- COP26 President Claire O’Neill: “No deal is better than the bad deal proposed”
- UN secretary-general António Guterres: “Do we really want to be remembered as the generation that buried its head in the sand?”
- Harjeet Singh, climate lead from ActionAid: “We can’t just keep calling for ambition from developing countries without putting money on the table.”
- Alden Meyer, director of policy and strategy at Union of Concerned Scientists: “I’ve been attending these climate negotiations since they first started in 1991. But never have I seen the almost total disconnect we’ve seen here at COP25 in Madrid between what the science requires and what the climate negotiations are delivering.”

New York Times: “China and India joined the United States in pushing back against more emphatic language that calls on countries to enhance their climate-action targets in 2020. The European Union joined many poor, vulnerable countries in calls to be more ambitious.”

Washington Post: “Fights also dragged on about how to provide funding to poorer nations already coping with rising seas, crippling droughts and other consequences of climate change.”

Politico, quoting Simon Stiell, the environment minister from Granada: “When we have what some may view as academic debates in the halls, it is people, it is people’s lives that are under direct threat.”

Carbon Brief writeup on carbon markets: “The CDM (Kyoto carbon market) is widely viewed as a failure. Rather than driving more ambitious targets, analysts think most of the emissions reductions under the CDM would have happened anyway, either because they made financial sense without credits or were required by law.”

3. The overall UN Climate Change web site is at https://unfccc.int. The per-country pledge writeups (aka NDCs = Nationally Determined Contributions) can be found here. (The ones I scanned were in English and readable. It’s worth taking a look. India’s, for example, has a long explanation for why it continues to grow emissions.)

4. You can find some information about the Green Climate Fund at its site -- https://www.greenclimate.fund/home -- and a strongly worded op-ed about our refusal to participate here, written by an economist who worked on it. An interactive calculator shows contributions to date using various metrics.

5. Over thirty countries, led by Costa Rica, agreed on a set of principles for effective carbon markets. They include trades that strictly reduce emissions and avoid double-counting and use of worthless credits.

6. The US Climate Alliance organizes the US States that continue to participate in the Paris agreement. America’s Pledge On Climate organizes a broader set of public and private leaders (e.g., including cities and corporations).

Current Climate Data (November 2019)
The globe had the second warmest November on record.
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)

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