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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.

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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.

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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.

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While the embattled Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change may have been the leading climate-related news the past couple weeks, of more importance to the international negotiations were two meetings at opposite ends of the globe. A week ago Saturday, China and Japan held a one-day ministerial level meeting in Beijing to discuss economic matters, among them their approaches to climate change. Then at the end of last week, experts and environmental ministers from some 45 nations concluded a two-day meeting in Geneva on climate finance, a contentious issue that developing nations consider instrumental for crafting a binding international climate agreement.

Even though the climate summit in Cancun is unlikely to produce a treaty, internationalists hope these side meetings–and the final formal talks in Tianjin, China scheduled for November–will produce the understanding needed to move closer to an international agreement in Mexico at the end of the year. Will the recent gatherings in China and Switzerland foster the teamwork necessary to construct a consensus approach to combating climate change? It is too soon to judge the outcome of the financial talks (more on those later), but the news from China suggests that it is sticking to its unilateral game plan.

The Japanese connection

Although China and Japan are deeply connected trading partners, the Asian giants sit on opposite sides of the climate debate. While China is the world’s undisputed king of carbon emissions and an emerging superpower, it is also a poor, developing nation eager to protect the right to continue its fossil-fueled growth. Rich Japan’s smaller economy may now produce fewer greenhouse gases than China’s, but the Japanese–like the Americans and Europeans and the rest of the rich world–bear a greater historic responsibility for the current level of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere.

In spite of their differences, the two countries have a history of climate cooperation. During a state visit to Tokyo in May 2008, Chinese President Hu Jintao and his Japanese counterpart Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda signed a Joint Statement on Climate Change. The document, which the recent Beijing meetings reaffirmed, essentially endorses the Chinese negotiation position at last year’s Copenhagen summit with a few Japanese caveats and clarifications.

In its most sweeping and controversial section, the agreement says that “the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change [UNFCCC] and its Kyoto Protocol are the appropriate and effective framework for international cooperation to address climate change.” It then goes on to enshrine “the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities.” These innocuous sounding sentences have emerged as two of the biggest points of contention between rich and poor countries since the disappointing outcome in Copenhagen.

Another venue

First, some countries have begun to question whether the UN is even the right venue for addressing climate change…

Click here to read the rest of this UN Dispatch blog post on the Huffington Post.

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The World Resources Institute recently released updated estimates of the “fast-start” climate mitigation and adaption commitments rich nations made to poor countries after the Copenhagen summit. The headline figures are pretty impressive: Developed nations have set aside an estimated $27.9 billion, a combined total that is only $2 billion shy of the amount they promised between now and 2012. Environmental think tank WRI was quick to note that “while this represents a significant step in the right direction, developed countries still have much to do in meeting their Copenhagen fast-start pledge.” With unprecedented costs of combating climate-related disasters in Pakistan and Russia, one must ask, is this pledge a big enough step?

Fast-start money matters

First a bit of background: The fast-start pledge was only intended to help fund poorer, more vulnerable countries’ climate efforts from now through 2012, when the Kyoto Protocol is due to expire. The negotiators who cobbled together the non-binding Copenhagen Accord at the eleventh hour of the last big climate summit hoped to have a successor treaty with larger, binding climate finance figures in place before then. The Accord established a goal of ramping up mitigation and adaption funding to $100 billion by 2020.

Unfortunately, the diverging negotiating positions of rich and poor countries that have emerged since the Copenhagen summit make it less likely that a binding treaty will be agreed upon and ratified by 2012. This dreaded “Kyoto gap”–as the expected space between the end of the current greenhouse gas regulatory regime and whatever comes next is now being referred to–has developing countries clamoring for assurances that rich nations are still committed to cooperatively addressing the threat of climate change.

One simple way for the developed world to reaffirm its resolve is by meeting the existing fast-start pledge made in Copenhagen. The importance of this point was made explicit before the Bonn climate talks by the environmental ministers of Brazil, South Africa, India, and China–an influential collection of emerging economies that have coalesced into the “BASIC” negotiating block. In a joint press release, the BASIC ministers warned that “fast-start finance will be the key for an effective result in the climate change negotiations in Cancun.”

Tallying the pledges

Although the Bonn talks failed to establish firmer climate finance figures, WRI’s estimates suggest that the developed world has still made progress in fulfilling the commitment it made in Copenhagen.

Click here to read and comment on the rest of this UN Dispatch post republished on the Huffington Post.

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Add another line to the resume: I’ve been accepted as a Huffington Post blogger. This green piece, originally written for UN Dispatch, is my first to be republished there. I have now joined hundreds of unpaid journalists, PR flacks, politicians, and celebrities who are all pushing our particular message on Arianna’s tremendously popular web platform. I’m not sure how often I’ll blog for HuffPo, but it’s a nice to now know that I can.

Clouds gather over Cancun

While everyone else is downplaying expectations for the year-end Cancun climate summit, Mexican negotiators still believe there can be a “spectacular breakthrough.” After the failure of the recent Bonn climate talks to achieve any substantial progress, one has to wonder how Mexico is defining success in Cancun? And more importantly, how does it aim to facilitate that outcome?

Mexico has stopped short of pushing for comprehensive treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol. Reluctantly acknowledging political reality after Bonn, Mexico’s chief delegate Fernando Tudela told Reuters earlier this week that “we will not be able to negotiate a new treaty in Cancun, that much is clear.” What they hope to come of their high profile summit is less clear.

Mexico’s conflicting messages

Before the Bonn talks devolved into what one EU delegate referred to as “tit-for-tat” diplomacy, Mexico’s Special Representative for Climate Change Luis Alfonso de Alba had suggested the Cancun summit could result in three new treaties: “We are not just talking about one single legally binding instrument but a set of them.” As De Alba explained it to Nina Chestney of Reuters, one treaty could cover Annex I, developed country signatories to the Kyoto Protocol; another, developing countries; and a third treaty could be drafted in an attempt to codify the promised reductions made in Copenhagen by the US–the world’s richest unrepentant emitter of greenhouse gas.

Mexico’s Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa is suggesting something entirely different: simply extend the Kyoto Protocol. Espinosa told The Hindu newspaper that “the existing legal framework is a good basis” for addressing climate change. “There is no need for a new treaty,” she said.

Under the Kyoto regime, developing countries–even large ones like China and India–are exempted from committing to carbon emissions reductions. As developing countries have come to produce an increasing share of greenhouse gases since 1997 when the Kyoto Protocol was initially adopted, that provision has become one of the biggest obstacles preventing American support for international climate agreements.

Espinosa’s proposal also faces logistical hurdles. The first commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol ends in 2012, but it most experts predict it would take years to authorize a second period leaving a regulatory gap between when Kyoto expires and comes back into force. Some worry that focusing on reauthorizing a contentious treaty will simply distract diplomats from the hard negotiating necessary to draft a more agreeable updated treaty (or treaties, as De Alba would have it).

Betting on developing nations

Mexico is acutely aware that climate negotiators are running short on time to shape a post-Kyoto legal structure. “We have a window of opportunity that is closing,” said Mexico’s chief Bonn delegate Tudela. “What we want to do is rescue these negotiations.”

Since the conclusion of the Bonn talks, Mexican diplomats have been racing around the globe trying to do just that. Last week De Alba traveled to Stockholm and announced Mexico’s intentions to reach out to developing nations “that felt their views were not significantly taken into account” in Copenhagen. This week Foreign Minister Espinosa was in India, one of those emerging countries hurt by the last minute diplomatic push that produced the Copenhagen Accord. In New Delhi, she met with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh to deliver the message that, “an ambitious outcome [in Cancun] requires India’s sustained political guidance and support.”

Mexico’s efforts to keep developing nations happy may end up pleasing no one.

Click here to continue reading, like, or comment on this UN Dispatch piece republished by the Huffington Post.

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This box, my first piece to be featured in Mother Jones magazine, was based on some research I did for my “Lines in the sand” article. I pitched the concept for this box on my third day in the DC bureau and was very pleasantly surprised when it was picked to run in print.

Four Don Quixote-style climate change projects—and how likely they are to succeed.

While politicians still debate the when and if of climate change, some governments and corporations are already bankrolling massive projects to stave off the catastrophic effects. But are they just global warming boondoggles?

Click here to see rest of the feature box from the November/December issue.

Photo credit: Chandra Marsono (via Flickr)

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