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The US climate position at COP18 in Doha: Weak on targets and equity, in favour of carbon trading

Before the UN climate negotiations started in Doha, three reports came out about climate change. The reports, by those environmental radicals at the World Bank, PricewaterhouseCoopers and the International Energy Agency, warned that the world is headed for between 4 and 6°C of warming.

You wouldn’t know it from the statements made by the two US lead negotiators, Todd Stern and Jonathan Pershing. While this is not specifically about REDD, it is important for REDD for two reasons. First, because without meaningful targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, there will be no demand for REDD carbon credits (as it is currently developing, REDD is a carbon trading mechanism, although it does not necessarily have to be). Second, because unless emissions from burning fossil fuels are meaningfully reduced, the world faces runaway climate change which would have devastating impacts on large areas of the world’s forests (which is a strong argument against trading the carbon stored in forests against continued emissions from fossil fuels).

The U.S. is historically the largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world. Based on current emissions, China is the biggest emitter. REDD-Monitor will look at China’s climate position in Doha in a forthcoming post.

The U.S. has a target of reducing emissions by 17% by 2020 compared to 2005 emissions. In Doha U.S. negotiators said that this is unlikely to change. At an NGO briefing, Pershing said that the U.S. had a different understanding of what equity means, compared to countries such as India, China and South Africa. And Stern explained that the U.S. is “for market mechanisms”.

The “meaningless” U.S. target

At the start of the negotiations, Pershing described the efforts of the US to reduce emissions domestically as “enormous” and suggested that the US deserves more credit. This is despite the fact that US emissions target for 2020 is only a reduction of 17% below 2005 levels, a target that Sunita Narain, director-general, of Indian NGO CSE, describes as “meaningless”. Here’s what Pershing said:

“Those who don’t follow what the US is doing may not be informed of the scale and extent of the effort, but it’s enormous…. It doesn’t mean enough is being done. It’s clear the global community, and that includes us, has to do more if we are going to succeed at avoiding the damages projected in a warming world.”

A couple of days later, during an informal briefing to NGOs, Pershing continued the theme. “It looks unlikely that the US will change the number (17 per cent by 2020) between now and 2020,” he said.

Todd Stern arrived in Doha for the second week of negotiations and gave a press briefing on 3 December 2012. So far, this is the only press briefing that Stern has given in Doha. (All the press briefings and open negotiations are available on the UNFCCC’s video on demand site.)

Stern repeated the theme of US “achievements” on reducing emissions. When asked whether there might be a change in tone of substance from the US in Doha, given that President Obama is now in his second term, Stern replied,

“Well I, look I don’t know if I would, er if I would er, would er, think about this in terms of a different tone here. Look, the US has done quite significant things in the President’s first four years, in his first term. I saw, just the other day actually, a report by Resources for the Future, which is a quite good, kind of environmental, economic think tank in Washington, that projects us to be on track for about a 16.5% reduction based on policies that we have in place now.”

Stern referred to figures on U.S. emissions produced by the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA):

“I saw the EIA recently put out some numbers with respect to where we are as of the I think its the end of 2011, the numbers show for energy emissions I think we’re down 9% so far.”

Writing on Climate Progress, Kevin Matthews takes a closer look at the EIA numbers and concludes that claims about reductions of U.S. emissions are misleading. The figures the EIA produced are based only on carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel consumption. They exclude methane, flaring, and biomass emissions, for example. “The claim [that emissions have fallen sharply] is wrong,” Matthews writes, “because to get to greenhouse gas emissions overall, all the non-energy-related emissions sources also need to also be included.”

Equity? Not in the U.S.

Stern started his press briefing by confirming that nothing much would come out of Doha:

“This COP is I think an important transitional COP if you will. I think the main objective is to conclude the negotiating tracks from Bali, both the Kyoto Protocol and the so called LCA, and to set the stage for progress toward a Durban Platform Agreement.”

So, no actual progress, just setting the stage for progress towards an agreement that will come into force in 2020. Stern went on to explain that the fact that the Durban Platform would only start in 2020 made it more likely that the U.S. would ratify it:

“The Durban Platform … in our way of thinking has maybe two most important elements to it. One is that it is applicable to all. That’s a 180 degree different approach for any agreement of a legal nature or with legal force, which is what this is supposed to be. The previous existing legal agreement, Kyoto, where all of the obligations of Kyoto are applicable only to some. So that’s a very important element.

The other element that’s going to condition the nature of this agreement is that it’s for the world of the 2020s. It takes effect from 2020, some time in 2020…. The fact that it is in the world of the 2020s, is going to push even more, frankly, in the direction that we have been pushing in since 2009, since the start of the Obama administration, the start of the time that I came into this job.

Which is to say that while there certainly needs to be differentiation between countries, we would argue that that’s a differentiation that needs to be made on the basis of practical, pragmatic, real world, material considerations. So it’s a differentiation that’s got to be built on countries’ national circumstances and capabilities, but not built on ideology. Not built on an ideology that says we’re going to draw a line down the middle of the world and countries are on one side or the other and if you’re on one side you have no obligations and if you’re on the other side you have all. That’s not what we agreed to in Durban.

According to Stern’s view of the world, by 2020, many countries of the global South will have become very large emitters of greenhouse gases and will therefore need to take on commitments almost as large as those of the U.S.

At a briefing in Doha, Pershing told NGOs that the U.S. rejects the idea that atmospheric space can be divided. Down to Earth reported Pershing as saying that it is unacceptable that a finite amount of greenhouse gas emissions is taken and divided giving countries their obligations, based on different scenarios. He said that,

“The obligation states you [U.S.] would have to reduce emissions down to negative 37 per cent. The obligation of China will be a tiny bit, but India can still grow quite a lot. The politics of that quite frankly really don’t work. I can’t really sell that to the Congress back home.”

At a meeting with environment ministers in the second week of negotiations at Doha, Stern said that he was willing to discuss “equity” and the provision for “common but differentiated responsibilities” in existing climate change agreements.

In his statement to the high level plenary, Stern confirmed the need to review and discuss principles of equity.

“Lets provide opportunity for Parties to discuss all critical issues, including the principle of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. The US would welcome such a discussion, because unless we can find common ground on that principle and the way in which it should apply in the world of the 2020s, we won’t succeed in producing a new Durban Platform agreement.”

Open to carbon trading

Stern explained that the U.S. is “open” to market mechanisms:

“We pioneered the market mechanisms, actually. The first COP I was at was Kyoto. We were pushing the idea of market mechanisms very strongly against very concerted opposition from the EU. Times have changed!”

He also discussed the risk of double counting with carbon trading mechanisms:

“One of the things that … I think is quite important with market mechanisms and will be more important as we go forward, because we are now in a world where many developing countries have now, and even more so in the future, will have their own commitments, which was not true back in the time of Kyoto. And that’s a great thing but what it introduces is a risk of double counting. Because if you are buying credits from developing countries whether in a CDM or if there’s a new sectoral type crediting system that’s set up, you have to work very hard to ensure that the credits, that you buy from whatever country it may be, and that you then count, whoever you are, don’t also get counted from that country.

And that’s going to be a big, big challenge.

We’re not against it, but we are concerned to make sure that it works in a way that it is what the atmosphere sees.

REDD-Monitor has previously raised the issue of double counting. There is a serious danger that trade in REDD credits will mean that reductions in deforestation in the tropics will count as emissions reductions in rich countries.

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  1. Chris

    There is a third reason why the US position in the negotiations impacts on REDD: because unless the US makes some genuine commitments to reductions, then they will rightly been seen by developing countries as nothing but hypocritical scumbags for demanding reductions in forest-based emissions and possibly undermining the livelihoods of some of the poorest people on the planet, whilst doing nothing to change their own profligate, planet-destroying lifestyles.

    Presumably, the 9% reduction in US fossil fuel emissions (since 2005) is because of the successful efforts of Lehmann Brothers and Goldman Sachs et al to wreck the US economy in 2008, rather than conscious effort on the part of the government to cut fuel use. Similarly, presumably the projected ‘decrease’ of 17% by 2020 has got more to do with the US switching to (shale) gas from coal and oil and then any planned environmental policies. Presumably, Barack Obama understands that his government will continue to be the global international pariah.


  3. @ILMARINEN G. VOGEL (#2) – You might find this useful: “HOW DO I TURN OFF CAPSLOCK?

    Lots of companies already “put environmental protection on their banner”. This is greenwash (more often than not). The trouble is the US isn’t going to take the lead. The political parties are financed by the corporations that are causing the problem. Clearly, this is a political problem that needs political answers not a “new generation of consumers”. George Monbiot’s most recent article, “Forbidden Planet”, outlines the problem and suggests a solution:

    Neoliberalism is not the root of the problem: it is the ideology used, often retrospectively, to justify a global grab of power, public assets and natural resources by an unrestrained elite. But the problem cannot be addressed until the doctrine is challenged by effective political alternatives.

    In other words, the struggle against climate change – and all the crises which now beset both human beings and the natural world – cannot be won without a wider political fight: a democratic mobilisation against plutocracy. I believe this should start with an effort to reform campaign finance: the means by which corporations and the very rich buy policies and politicians. Some of us will be launching a petition in the UK in the next few weeks, and I hope you will sign it.

  4. @Z Witness (#1) – The U.S. is replacing coal use at home with shale gas and increasing coal exports, which results in a global increase in emissions (gas + coal). Here’s an article in Forbes (10 December 2012):

    The U.S. is achieving many of the energy goals because of cheap natural gas from hydraulic fracturing of shale that it has failed to achieve through policy. Those achievements now include—according to an account on Forbes from Energy Report—70 percent of the CO2-emission reductions the U.S. would have committed to under the Kyoto Protocol, had the U.S. ever signed that document.

    But the side effects of fracking look less rosy from the global perspective.

    America is shuttering coal plants but not coal mines, and coal unwanted at home is finding its place overseas.

    Tomorrow the International Energy Agency will announce that Europe has shifted from clean natural gas to dirtier coal as U.S. coal, displaced at home by shale gas, floods the European energy market.