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This second of two posts about the Tianjin climate talks gets into the dismal politics responsible for the stalled policies.

The climate talks in Tianjin last week did very little to improve the prospects for a binding international treaty, which would reduce the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that are warming the globe. In the wake of the disappointing meeting, Lisa Jackson, the administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), made her first official visit to China. During the trip, which began Saturday as Tianjin talks came to a close and ended yesterday, Jackson and her Chinese counterpart, Environmental Protection Minister Zhou Shengxian, renewed a bilateral environmental “memorandum of understanding” that had expired in 2008. Will this pact help defuse the superpowers’ climate standoff?

Tensions in Tianjin

The frustrating UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meeting again made clear the gulf of understanding between the US and China. Like painful repeat of the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, the Tianjin talks stalled when China refused to consider America’s call for all pledges made by developing countries to be independently monitored and verified. Claiming this would violate the Kyoto Protocol’s principle of differentiated responsibilities for rich and poor countries, Chinese negotiator Huang Huikang said, “I want to emphasize on our side no compromise on the two track process and no compromise on the interests of developing countries.”

The Times of India offered further insight into why developing giants like China are so opposed to independent monitoring: “The US stance of demanding equal level of scrutiny of mitigation actions of emerging economies is considered a backdoor route of converting the voluntary actions of countries like China, India, Brazil and South Africa into international commitments.”

US climate change envoy Todd Stern, who was not even at Tianjin, further entrenched Chinese resistance to the American proposal. In a speech at the University of Michigan Law School, he alleged that China was acting as if the Copenhagen Accord “never happened.” Su Wei, a senior Chinese climate change delegate at the talks, responded in a press conference by comparing the US to a vain pig. “[The US] has no measures or actions to show for itself, and instead it criticizes China, which is actively taking measures and actions,” Su huffed. “The developed countries are trying every means possible to avoid discussion of the essential issue–that is, emission reductions.”

Other nations watched helplessly as the political posturing of the world’s two largest climate polluters prevented movement on the other policies the negotiators had hoped to address in Tianjin.

Click here to read the rest of this UN Dispatch piece on the Huffington Post or to make a comment.

Photo credit: chesbayprogram (via Flickr)

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This post was picked up by The Multilateralist blog on Foreign Policy, a great magazine I have unsuccessfully interviewed with for a job.

Since the outcome of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change summit in Copenhagen failed to meet the sky high hopes environmentalists had placed in it, international negotiators have been working hard ever since to lower expectations. Gone is talk of quickly crafting an binding successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol, which effectively expires in 2012. Diplomats have given up on a firm agreement until the 2011 summit in South Africa and are instead trying to do what is “politically possible.”

Yet even with those diminished goals, the six-day Tianjin climate talks, which concluded this weekend, made so little progress that some diplomats openly wondered whether continuing the UNFCCC process was even politically worthwhile.

The Tianjin talks were a big deal. An estimated 3,100 delegates from 177 countries attended the talks from October 4-9. Thousands of other representatives from business and industry, environmental organizations and research institutions also attended the event.

UNFCCC meetings like this exist because world leaders believe a global commitment to reducing emissions and cooperating on clean energy and carbon storage is necessary to address global warming. The problem has been getting nations with very different interests to find policy solutions that every country can agree on. While no country will benefit from uncontrolled climate change, some have more to gain–or lose–from preventing it.

Problematic policies

Negotiators came to Tianjin with four items on their agenda: Codifying the voluntary pledges made after Copenhagen (as inadequate as they are), setting up the rules for forest conservation and clean tech cooperation, creating a process for transferring and verifying climate aid, and–most vexing–determining the structure of an eventual climate treaty. The hope was that diplomats could start working on the broad outlines in China and then sign a pact combining the areas of agreement in Mexico next month.

“The agreements that can be reached in Cancun may not be exhaustive in their details,” UNFCCC chief negotiator Christiana Figueres explained in a statement. “But as a balanced package they must be comprehensive in their scope and they can deliver strong results in the short term as well as set the stage for long term commitments to address climate change in an effective and fair manner.”

Click here to read the rest of this UN Dispatch piece on the Huffington Post or to make a comment.

Photo credit: adopt a negotiator (via Flickr)

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350.org is an influential newcomer to the environmental movement. I was curious to hear how they got their start so I used this social media piece as an excuse to talk with some interesting people.

An abridged version of this story focused exclusively on 350.org ran on the front page of the Huffington Post’s Green section the weekend after the 10/10/10 Global Work Party mentioned below. It was featured just below a post from 350.org co-founder and aclaimed author Bill McKibben.

My bike helmet is hoisted in the air on the left side of this photo.

American environmentalists recently suffered a pair of devastating defeats in their decades-long effort to halt global warming. Progress stalled on domestic legislation to cap greenhouse gas emissions prior to a key UN summit in Copenhagen. Lack of leadership from America, the world’s second largest climate polluter, made it impossible to produce and binding international agreement at the conference. Then, a few months later, the U.S. climate bill died in the Senate.

Their diplomatic and legislative maneuvers having fallen short, U.S. climate campaigners are hoping a renewed focus on activism and grassroots organizing can provide the push needed to produce carbon emission controls. As a result, the Internet and digital media are playing a growing role in efforts of progressive organizations ranging from new climate activists like 350.org to longtime environmental agitators such as Greenpeace.

Birth of 350.org

By using the same name and web address, 350.org announced to the world in 2008 that it was a new kind of environmental advocacy organization. In choosing the odd name, the founders of 350.org wanted to communicate that their group was a science-based, single issue organization. The number comes from research, which shows that 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most the atmosphere can safely absorb without triggering catastrophic climate change.

The group emerged after author Bill McKibben and a group of recent Middlebury College graduates organized the 2007 Step It Up campaign. They collaborated with existing environmental organizations like Greenpeace, as well as other groups and governments interested in climate protection. The upstart activists described it as the “first open source, web-based day of action dedicated to stopping climate change.”

It was a surprising success.

Click here to keep reading about 350.org and Greenpeace or to make a comment.

Photo credit: 350.org (via Flickr)

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This post was linked to in a Washington Post column on the Cancun climate summit.

With only days remaining until diplomats are due to arrive in Tianjin for the final round of climate negotiations before the Cancun summit, scientists have provided a grim reminder of how little progress governments have made in addressing the threat of climate change and the consequences of continued inaction. Yet the statements being made by some world leaders suggest that governments are still unwilling to acknowledge the scope of the problem.

Stern Warning

Research now suggests that the fifteenth Conference of the Parties (COP 15) in Copenhagen was an even bigger failure than originally thought. A study published yesterday in the journal Environmental Research Letters found that the national emissions reduction commitments countries made under the non-binding Copenhagen Accord will still result in a dangerous increase in the global average temperature. The cuts would only limit warming over the next century to 4.2º C (7.6º F), according to the analysis of scientists from seven European research centers. The increase baked into the Copenhagen Accord is only slightly off the “catastrophic” 5 – 7º C rise the UK’s Met Office warned would result if the world continued to burn fossil fuels at the present rate.

Global warming in excess of 2º C could produce disastrous changes to the earth’s ecosystems. The study’s authors warn that the present cuts will not be enough to save heat-sensitive coral reefs, the “rainforests of the sea.” Already, scientist are predicting a widespread coral die off in the Caribbean, which will decimate the wide range of marine life that thrives in this fragile habitat. As ScienceDaily notes, “coral reefs provide services estimated to be worth as much as $375 billion globally each year,” the loss of which would benefit no one at the negotiating table.

At this point, it is not even clear that the best efforts of negotiators could prevent dangerous warming from occurring. According to the Environmental Research Letters study, with an emissions reduction of 50% by 2050, there is still a less than 50% chance of keeping the global temperature rise under 2º C. “It is clear from this analysis that higher ambitions for 2020 are necessary” to limit increases to below 2º C “without relying on potentially infeasible reduction rates after 2020,” the scientists concluded.

Ignoring the Problem

Meanwhile, world leaders are heading to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change talks in Tianjin with ambitions too small to address the looming crisis.

Click here to read the rest of this UN Dispatch piece or to make a comment on the Huffington Post.

Photo credit: London Permaculture (via Flickr)

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This was my third, final, and favorite piece that I wrote at CGI.

Earlier this week at the Clinton Global Initiative, UN climate chief Christiana Figueres offered her assessment of what was preventing progress in the international negotiations. Yesterday, a few high-profile American business leaders shared their perspectives. They offered a first-hand view of government shortcomings, the powers and limitations of private sector action, and the role US citizens have played in stymieing the global climate talks.

Free the market?

Regulations are important, but can sometimes get in the way. Moderator Mindy Lubber, the president of the sustainable investor network Ceres and a former regulator, defended environmental rules, in particular the one that now allows the EPA to restrict carbon emissions. “Given that the congress didn’t act [to reduce greenhouse gases], it is all the more important for the EPA to have that authority.” However, in the next breath she lamented the legal delays that have held up the permitting of Cape Wind, the controversial windfarm project off the scenic coast of Cape Cod. “It should not have taken ten and a half years,” Lubber said.

Government environmental policy is plagued by a lack of accountability and direction. Jeffrey Swartz, the CEO of sustainable footwear manufacturer Timberland, seized on the Cape Wind fiasco to illustrate the difference between how the public and private sectors operate. “If it took me ten and a half weeks to deliver against a promise I made, [the board of directors] would fire me. And I’m the majority shareholder of our company,” said Swartz, whose family has run Timberland for three generations. “The absence of leadership is the crisis” in climate protection, he continued.

Big business, small changes

So who should take the lead in reducing carbon emissions and preventing catastrophic climate change? Describing business and government as dancing partners with each waiting for the other to take the first step, the the UNFCCC’s Figueres suggested on Tuesday that it was time for business to make a move. Although Swartz used the same metaphor, he also gave a great illustration of why business can’t take the lead on an issue as big and complex as climate change.

Click here to read the rest of this UN Dispatch piece on the Huffington Post or to comment.

Photo credit: Clean Wal-Mart (via Flickr)

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This was my write up of the first of a handful of great panel discussions I saw at CGI.

In a candid session on energy and the environment at the Clinton Global Initiative yesterday, the world’s lead climate negotiator Christiana Figueres explained why her organization, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), had made so little progress in establishing international climate protection regulations. She suggested that there were two main reasons for the climate negotiations stalemate: Tensions between developed and developing countries and-surprisingly, given that she was sharing the stage with green entrepreneur Richard Branson-businesses.

According to the Costa Rican executive director of UNFCC, business is not taking bold enough steps to reduce its carbon footprint because it’s waiting for government to move onto creating a comprehensive regulatory framework. And the governments are nervously staring at their feet because “business is not pushing us,” Figueres explained. “We have a nice little dance of you first, you first, you first…” So which partner does the head of the intergovernmental climate negotiations believe should make the next move? “Very conveniently, I think business should be taking the lead here,” she confided to the audience of corporate and nonprofit leaders. And what would private sector leadership in climate protection look like? Figures suggested the example of the mobile phone revolution, which has spread and decentralized modern communication. The first cellphone was invented in 1973 and weighed 2.5 pounds. By the end of 2010, there will be 5 billion mobile phones on the market, all of which will weigh less than 4 ounces according to her figures.

But letting business twirl governments around the dance floor has its risks.

Click here to read the rest of this UN Dispatch piece on the Huffington Post or to make a comment.

Photo credit: Lorenia (via Flickr)

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This the first piece I wrote at the 2010 Clinton Global Initiative in New York City. Having missed the opening day of what was a busy week full of high-level climate talks, I had to rely on the reporting of other journalists. However, even with that handicap, I picked up on one of the (problematic) themes for the coming week: The supposed power of business to fix the climate problem.

Yesterday marked the official beginning of UN Week in New York City. This flurry of high-level diplomatic meetings will culminate in the two-day UN General Assembly, which gets under way Thursday. International leaders are using the gathering to try and kick-start the stalled climate negotiations. At the same time, innovative businesses and nonprofits are meeting around town to consider other approaches to the climate challenge. On Monday, the moods of the the dueling gatherings could not have been more different.

The first day of the Major Economies Forum on Climate and Energy was a sobering attempt by governments to lower the expectations for coordinated climate action. The two-day meeting is bringing together climate negotiators from 17 nations that are responsible for 80 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. “Clearly now the focus is on post-Cancun,” the Indian environmental minister Jairam Ramesh said, referring to the year-end climate summit in Mexico. “We recognize that there is no breakthrough possible in Cancun but let’s now try to cut our losses and see what we can do after Cancun,” Ramesh said.

Business leaders were much more upbeat about the role the private sector can play in reducing climate change.

Click here to read the rest of the UN Dispatch piece on the Huffington Post or to make a comment.

Photo credit: fotdmike (via Flickr)

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