Think Progress

by Rebecca Lefton and Andrew Light

The next high-level gathering of parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) started this week in Doha, Qatar, running through Dec. 7. Here’s an overview of the upcoming talks and what the results of the U.S. elections may mean for the Obama administration’s positions at the conference.

What does the U.S. election mean for U.S. climate action?

As the delegates in Doha gather, questions abound concerning the intentions of the U.S. now that the election is over. The re-election of President Obama and members of congress that voted to defend the administration’s ability to act on global warming is an affirmation of an agenda prioritizing clean energy and climate change. Just as importantly, the American public’s belief in global warming has never been higher growing to 70 percent. More than three-quarters of U.S. voters want elected officials to take steps to address global warming.

There was also a significant increase between last March and last September in the number of Americans who strongly agree that climate change could directly impact them, jumping 13 points higher than it has been for the last four years. Forty-two percent of respondents now say that global warming will impact them a “great deal” or a “moderate amount.” This measure of concern has historically been the softest part of the American public’s views on climate change, with belief that global warming will adversely impact plants, animals, future people or people in developing countries more than double the concern that it would harm them.

These same polls show that the strongest driver of this change in the intensity of Americans’ concerns about climate change were last summer’s extreme weather and drought. If these polls were run again today after Hurricane Sandy this concern would no doubt jump again. Given that we can expect more extreme weather consistent with climate projections in the future, as evidenced, for example in a recent World Bank report, then the American public will be demanding more climate action.

Unfortunately, given the results of the congressional elections, President Obama will likely be operating under the same political constraints for national action which he was operating under in his last term.  Nonetheless, the president is standing firm on our international commitments for emission reductions. As he reiterated in an interview during the election:  “. . . .we can meet the targets that I negotiated with other countries in Copenhagen to bring our carbon emissions down by about 17 percent [below 2005 levels by 2020], even as we are creating good jobs.” On Monday, Deputy U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Jonathan Pershing, announced to the delegates in Doha that U.S. emissions are already 8.8 percent below 1990 levels, emphasizing that we are projected to meet our 2020 goal.

While some of these reductions are attributable to the shift to generating more electricity from natural gas, the Obama administration’s policies are effectively reducing greenhouse gases. A report by the Center for Climate Strategies using data from the Energy Information Administration finds the U.S. is on a trajectory to achieving President Obama’s goal for carbon emission reductions by 2020. Policies at the federal, state and local level constitute the majority of the emissions reductions account for nearly 70 percent of these reductions. The economic slowdown and fuel switching from coal to natural gas together only account for around 22 percent of reductions. For instance, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a collection of ten northeast and Mid-Atlantic States has already cut emissions by 23 percent since the beginning of the program in 2009. Twenty-one states have emissions targets and 29 states plus the District of Columbia have renewable energy standards in place.

Even assuming that congress is not willing to move forward on progressive climate action, the Obama administration will continue to address global warming using executive authority and rulemaking under the Clean Air Act, including the development of rules for new power plants. We can also expect that the administration will pursue progress on limiting greenhouse gas pollution through bilateral and multilateral partnerships to advance clean energy technology deployment, expand sustainable energy access and aid developing countries that will be hit hardest by climate change as part of U.S. foreign aid diplomacy and national security goals. In this respect we expect no change in U.S. commitment to the UNFCCC process and through multilateral bottom-up efforts like enhanced action through the G20, and the U.S.-led Climate and Clean Air Coalition, which brings together states, the private sector and NGOs to address short lived climate pollutants such as methane, HFCs, and black carbon, which are more powerful than carbon dioxide.

What to watch in Doha?

The UNFCCC talks in Doha will continue the progress that has been made to date toward advancing a series of tracks toward a comprehensive climate agreement.  While none of these tracks alone is sufficient to address global climate change, taken together they have advanced us closer to a comprehensive international solution than we have ever seen before. The biggest items on the three primary tracks on the Doha program are: the closing of the Ad-hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action (LCA), agreement on a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, and advancing a work plan for the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP).

Closing of the Ad-hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action

In 2011 during previous climate talks in Durban, South Africa parties to the UNFCCC agreed that the LCA should conclude in Doha. The LCA, which began in 2007 to implement the Bali Action Plan that was agreed to under the Bush administration, gave rise to the Copenhagen Accord and the Cancun Agreements.  Though Copenhagen was viewed as a disappointment for many throughout the world hoping for a binding international treaty, it was never likely the case that the 2009 meeting could have ended in a binding agreement. The U.S. would not have signed onto an agreement that did not solve the problem of rising greenhouse gases by leaving out major emitters like India and China–now the largest emitter in the world with the country’s per capita emissions on par with the European Union’s emissions. China even objected in Copenhagen to developed countries articulating their own 2050 emission reduction targets in a formal agreement, presumably because it would entail that rapidly developing countries would be responsible for the remainder of required emission reductions to achieve some level of  climate safety.

Yet, Copenhagen was groundbreaking because for the first time countries at all stages of development agreed to put forward pledges for national actions to address global warming by 2020. Over the past three years 141 countries, including all the major emitters in the developed and developing world, responsible for over 80 percent of global emissions, have made voluntary mitigation pledges. This was an important step forward given that until then the only articulated pledges for reductions were made by developed countries in the Kyoto Protocol, which now only accounts for less than 15 percent of global emissions.

Perhaps most importantly, the LCA allowed for a pathway for a bottom-up approach bringing pledges from both developed and developing countries to the table. The bottom-up approach, as opposed to a top-down architecture allows for varying commitments by country. This is significant because it recognizes the different capacities and levels of development of each country. The question is how do we ensure that the sum of parties’ commitments will keep us on a pathway where it is still possible to hold temperature increase at 2 degrees Celsius, over pre-industrial levels, which is now the agreed upon goal of the UN process?

Many analyses warn that there is a gap between the total emissions reductions from parties’ pledges under the Copenhagen Accord and where we need to be to meet the 2C goal by 2020. The current framework allows for parties to start where they are and assess progress to see what must be done to meet the 2C goal. These pledges, along with agreements on transparency, technology, forestry, and finance were enshrined in Cancun during the 2010 UN climate conference. Parties agreed to report on progress of their unilateral commitments and the following year in Durban, countries agreed to regular regional reviews beginning in 2013. Work on how to overcome this gap will now move to the new track under the Durban Platform.

More importantly on the LCA track will be the successful transfer of work streams from the LCA to other tracks and implementation of institutions previously agreed to in Copenhagen and Cancun. Most important of these is the newly created Clean Technology Center and Network and the Green Climate Fund. Both fulfill the promise made in 2007 in Bali that developed countries should help developing countries to more quickly transition to a low-carbon economy by providing access to clean energy technology and finance.

The financial commitments made as part of the LCA track negotiations is perhaps the most critical at this point. Parties agreed to targets for climate finance in 2009 of $30 billion in “fast start finance” from 2010 to 2012, and the creation of a global fund that can help mobilize the bulk of a commitment to $100 billion annually in public and private funds by 2020. Developing countries will be most concerned in Doha that a funding gap does not develop between 2012 and 2020. We have argued that a ramp up of funding toward this $100 billion goal is needed throughout this decade both in order to leverage emissions reductions in developing countries, where we will see the largest rise in greenhouse gas emissions, and to increase the capacity for private investment which can benefit all parties.  And because approximately one-fifth of the emission reduction programs submitted by developing countries to the Cancun Agreements are contingent on financial and technical support, they will not happen without global support for making them happen.

These issues and others in the LCA track are not easily resolved. Progress made in the LCA on REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation), technology, and finance and ongoing work streams must continue elsewhere, whether it be the Ad-hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) or subsidiary bodies of the convention. The outcomes of the Kyoto Protocol and ADP depend in part on how smoothly the work of the LCA transitions or concludes.

Defining a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol

The Kyoto Protocol discussions (KP) will focus on the conditions that developed and developing country parties can agree to on the extension of the KP for a second period which would end in 2020 at the latest. The Kyoto Protocol sets binding emissions targets for developed countries that sign onto it, but developing countries are not obliged to make reductions. The US did not sign onto the KP for this reason. The 1997 Byrd-Hagel Resolution said the Senate would not consider a climate treaty that divided the world between the responsibilities of developed and developing countries.  So far, the only major developed parties to agree to a second commitment period are the EU, Australia and Switzerland.

There are a range of issues here on the exact length of the extension, what new commitments for reductions developed countries will agree to, what level of ratification each party will agree to, and whether the Clean Development Mechanism (see below) should be open to any developed countries that signs on to the KP or only to those who articulate an official QUELRO (quantified emission limitation and reduction objective) by the end of the second commitment period.

The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), designed under the KP, is the only carbon market for developing countries. The CDM allows carbon credits to be earned for projects which reduce greenhouse gases in developing countries. Successfully reforming the CDM will help to ensure a significant stream of finance for adaptation and mitigation in developing countries continues, and in this respect is likely the most valuable part of the Doha negotiations over the future of the KP.

Some developed countries that were pushing back against developing countries on the acceptable levels of ratification have already opted out of a second KP, such as New Zealand.  Canada, Russia and Japan also announced intentions not to participate.

Advancing a work plan for the Durban Platform

The Ad-hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) is on the agenda during the second week of talks in Doha. Progress on the ADP is contingent on the outcome of the KP because many developing countries will likely not begin work in earnest on the ADP if there is not agreement on a second commitment period of the KP.

In the final outcome at Durban, the parties agreed that by 2015 they would create a “protocol, legal instrument, or agreed outcome with legal force…to come into effect and be implemented from 2020.” The Platform also called on parties to increase ambition and propose measures to close the gap between the pledges made under the Copenhagen Accord and the reductions needed to keep global temperature increase at 2C. Parties agreed to a process that “shall raise the level of ambition” of mitigation efforts consistent with the next major report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to be released between 2013 and 2015.

As we have argued, the most significant achievement of the Durban Platform is to create a process that will culminate in an international agreement that applies to all parties unlike the KP. To cement this in place both the US and the EU opposed explicit reference to the “common but differentiated responsibilities” (CBDR) and equity in the Durban agreement. Both of these ideas have been sued to stand for a hard and fast distinction between the obligations of developed and developing countries to reduce emissions. There are two work streams of the ADP—one dealing with the framework for an agreement and another on closing the mitigation gap. Both of these will be compromised if there is backsliding on the applicability of the agreement to all parties, which is quite possible given efforts to reinsert divisions between developed and developing countries in these negotiations and others around the world.

For example, an emerging negotiation block, the “Like Minded Developing Countries Group,” made up of about a dozen developing countries recently met to reaffirm the notion of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) in the June 2012 Rio Declaration. They demand financial resources and technology transfer in exchange for national actions on climate change and assert “that the process as well as the outcome of the Durban Platform in both work-streams are under the Convention and must therefore be in full accordance with its principles and provisions, especially equity and common but differentiated responsibilities.”

Efforts to enshrine CBDR are elsewhere in submissions to the ADP, such as China’s ambition submission:

Developed country Parties should take the lead in reducing their emissions by undertaking ambitious mitigation commitments and fulfill their obligations of providing financial resources and transferring technology to developing country Parties in accordance with the principles and provisions of the Convention, in particular the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. The key to increase the level of ambitions to reduce emissions lies with the developed country Parties’ political will and the recognition of their historical responsibility.

And China’s submission on the work plan of the ADP:

The ADP process will be conducted under the Convention and in full accordance with all its principles and provisions, in particular the principles of equity and common but  differentiated responsibilities and its outcome forms an integrated part of the Convention.

India’s ADP submission too reflected this view as well.  Argentina and Brazil’s submissions also make reference to CBDR and equity as the basis for the Durban Platform.

The U.S. position has been to not oppose CBDR as such, but to insist instead that it does not entail that there are only two groups of countries in the world with radically different sets of responsibilities. Since the Obama administration well understands that it can never get a treaty that looks like the Kyoto Protocol past the U.S. senate, then whatever the notion of fairness enshrined in the new agreement turns out to be, it must be one that acknowledges some principle of graduation:  that a country can sufficiently develop enough so that it can move from one category of obligation for mitigation to another. This is not to say that the U.S. has ever claimed that all countries should do have the same responsibilities for reducing emissions, but that obligations for reductions should instead exist across a broad range rather than only landing into two rigid categories. In Doha and in the coming years as negotiators work to develop the framework and details of a treaty by 2015 what’s needed is a conversation about how to reflect equity that ensures that the major global emitters are taking sufficient actions to prevent a dangerous increases in emissions.

Looking outside the UN talks

Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the new treaty being created by 2015 won’t take an ounce of carbon or any other greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere until 2020. In the meantime, parties must continue unilateral actions on climate change in good faith and as domestic strategies for economic growth.  And we must pursue progress in forums outside the UNFCCC. The World Bank report, warns that “we’re on track for a 4°C warmer world marked by extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise.” The report follows on the heels of the International Energy Agency 2011 World Energy Outlook release, which states, “On planned policies, rising fossil energy use will lead to irreversible and potentially catastrophic climate change,” and that “… we are on an even more dangerous track to an increase of 6°C.”

It is clear that focusing on the official UN climate negotiations alone is not enough to put us on a pathway to limiting global temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. That’s why CAP embraces a “multiple multilateralism” approach as a complement to the United Nations climate change process—a slate of multilateral agreements that can close the gap between anticipated unilateral mitigation commitments by parties until 2020 and reductions in greenhouse gases needed to put us on a pathway to climate safety by the end of the century.

A column released during the UN climate talks in Durban this past December introduced our multiple multilateralism approach. An upcoming CAP report will expand on the approach and identify where emissions reductions can be realized in existing multilateral forums outside the UN climate change negotiations.

For instance, an agreement to phase-down HFCs in the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (MP) could reduce approximately 4 Gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent through 2020. The Montreal Protocol is an international agreement that successfully reduced ozone-depleting substances, however the primary replacements for these pollutants are hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) that have a high global warming potential. HFCs, which are primarily used as refrigerants, are hundreds or tens of thousands of times more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide but they are shorter lived. HFCs are projected to double by 2020, in large part because they are being used as substitutes for ozone-depleting substances that are being phased-out under the MP. For the past four years, the U.S., Canada, Mexico jointly and Micronesia separately have introduced proposals to phase-down HFC’s in the MP but they have been blocked by India, China, and Brazil.  But international support for a phase-down is growing, as evidenced by UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio inclusion of a “gradual phase-down in the consumption and production of hydrofluorocarbons” in the outcome document, The Future We Want.

We must deliver on commitments like the G20 fossil fuel subsidies phase-out and build on the success of initiatives like the Climate and Clean Air Coalition and expand conversations to and within multiple forums. While the Doha meeting will likely end with stepwise progress toward a new international agreement, it is even more important now to look outside the UNFCCC at other forums for overcoming the emissions ambition gap we now face.

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Rebecca Lefton is a policy analyst and Andrew Light is a senior fellow, both working on international climate policy at the Center for American Progress.