Session of the United Nations climate negotiations October 2 in Panama City. Source: International Institute for Sustainable Development

Session of the United Nations climate negotiations October 2 in Panama City. Source: International Institute for Sustainable Development

Panama is only a short hop from the Caribbean islands now home to Worldwatch Institute’s Low-Carbon Energy Roadmaps project. But, it’s a big leap from the national renewable energy strategies being developed in the Caribbean to the tense efforts just wrapping up in Panama City to agree on global climate change reduction goals.

The Panama meetings from October 1-7 marked the final preparatory negotiation before the next United Nations climate change summit convenes in Durban, South Africa from November 28-December 10. With many issues on the negotiating table, countries made surprising progress on providing funding for climate change solutions, especially in developing countries. Countries also pushed big issues like a new global climate agreement and the next stage of the Kyoto Protocol onto an already overflowing agenda for Durban.

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The Kyoto Protocol (KP) still sits in troubled waters, as three of its signatory countries threaten to jump ship on its continuation beyond 2012

(Photo: The Adopt a Negotiator Project) The Kyoto Protocol (KP) still sits in troubled waters, as three of its signatory countries threaten to jump ship on its continuation beyond 2012.

Governments just finished another round of negotiations in Bonn, Germany under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. If the international climate talks are a ship, the last two weeks’ voyage saw equal parts clear sailing, stormy seas, and listless drifting, as nations advanced toward agreements on addressing ocean carbon storage and clean technology transfer, fought over the future of the Kyoto Protocol, and wasted nearly three days just trying to agree on the agenda for parts of the meeting.

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Person walking up long path


The most recent negotiations of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change just concluded in Bangkok, Thailand. While some progress toward international climate change action was achieved, the talks were full of mostly minor diplomatic victories on procedural and scheduling issues. Big questions, especially the fate of the Kyoto Protocol and a new global climate agreement, remain unanswered. Meanwhile, worldwide carbon pollution continues to rise.

The Bangkok negotiations lasted from April 3—8 and marked the first session of the 2011 global climate meetings. Governments spent most of their time trying to agree on a schedule of what to decide on in 2011 meetings. So, if you thought climate talks already had been tough to follow, try listening to negotiators negotiate about what they are going to negotiate about later. On the final day, countries ultimately agreed on a workplan for the rest of the year. The two key areas of work are: figuring out if and how to keep the current Kyoto Protocol alive; and continuing to develop a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, one that will involve a larger range of countries cutting their climate pollution.

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 By Haibing Ma  

China recently announced that it achieved its national goal for energy savings as outlined in the 11th Five-Year Plan of 2006–2010. But the real test of this success is just beginning. The country is about to release its next five-year plan for economic development and will need to delegate responsibility for achieving the next set of nationwide energy and emissions targets at the provincial and local levels.  

On January 6, Zhang Ping, Director-General of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), China’s macroeconomic planning body, announced that the country “basically” met its goal of reducing energy consumption per unit of GDP (i.e., energy intensity) by 20 percent by the end of 2010. This is the first time that a top Chinese official has claimed such success, although the exact level of energy savings has yet to be disclosed.  

But what about targets for the period past 2010? Zhang made his announcement during the first day of a two-day National Energy Administration meeting to outline key energy-related tasks for 2011. Yet the meeting didn’t reveal any detailed targets for China’s 12th Five-Year Plan (2011–15), instead providing basic guiding principles such as promoting clean and efficient use of fossil fuels, expediting the development of new and renewable energy sources, and optimizing regional energy projects.  

The new goals won’t be a secret for much longer. In early March, the annual assembly of the National People’s Congress will be held in Beijing. This yearly meeting of China’s highest organ of state power is the birthplace of the nation’s all-important policies. It is bound to attract significant worldwide attention this year because representatives from all around China will be gathering to review and then release the country’s next five-year plan for economic and social development.  

Of the numerous grand goals to be set in the 12th Five-Year Plan, the two figures that concern the international climate community the most are a new energy-intensity target and a first-time-ever target for reducing China’s carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP (i.e., carbon intensity). Although previous reports indicated that the nation’s new energy-intensity reduction target might be 17.3 percent, recent media coverage of the draft 12th Five-Year Plan hints at a 16-percent reduction (from the 2010 baseline) for both energy and carbon intensity. But these figures are still subject to change between now and March.  

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On December 11, the United Nations climate conference in Cancún, Mexico—which began with modest expectations—ended with modest results. This was no surprise, given the gaps that have existed not only between industrialized and developing countries, but also within these two groups. Cancún’s outcomes may not seem that impressive, or anywhere close to the FAB (fair, ambitious, and binding) standard. But a modest deal is definitely better than no deal at all, especially at a time when the world is starting to lose faith in the UN negotiating process.

China moves the ball

Looking back at the situation before Cancún, or even during the first few days of the conference, it is fair to say that without China’s initiative and positive “chain-reaction” impact on other nations, Cancún could have ended in the same disappointments as the Copenhagen climate talks did a year ago. Before Cancún, the world feared another U.S.-China deadlock, as was witnessed in Copenhagen and also at the October 2010 major climate meeting in Tianjin.

Luckily, in Cancún, the United States and China shook hands instead of bumping heads. The compromises that these and other countries made, as well as the host country’s excellent mediation skills, ultimately saved this conference.

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On Monday evening, Worldwatch hosted a well-attended official side event at the United Nations Climate Conference in Cancún titled “Low-Carbon Energy Roadmaps: Insights from Those Who Are Leading the Way.” The event explored Worldwatch’s unique approach to designing energy roadmaps worldwide and highlighted a handful of countries that are making measurable progress in the path toward low-carbon development.

Dan Kammen speaking at the Worldwatch event

The panel consisted of Norbert Gorissen from the German Federal Environment Ministry (BMU), Rae Kwon Chung from the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (and South Korea’s former climate ambassador), the World Bank’s new renewable energy czar Dan Kammen, Jiang Kejun from the Energy Research Institute of China, and Nelly Cuello from the Dominican Republic’s National Council on Climate Change. The meeting was moderated by Worldwatch President Christopher Flavin.

Following an opening presentation by Alexander Ochs, Worldwatch’s Energy and Climate Director, the panelists shared thoughts on how their countries (or in Kammen’s case, the World Bank and California) aspire to position themselves as leaders in creating low-carbon development strategies. Each of these players is moving ahead with ambitious policies even in the absence of real progress at the international level.

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In the aftermath of last year’s climate policy debacle in Copenhagen, South Korea is pointing the way to a creative new approach to solving the world’s climate problem.

Two events that occurred simultaneously last week in Cancún crystallized both the challenge and the opportunity facing world leaders as they wrap up the latest round of climate negotiations.

South Korea looks to the future as well

In one room in the Cancún Messe, Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh convened a meeting to discuss “equitable access to the world’s carbon space.” Speakers from countries including China and Malaysia made a powerful case for an agreement that recognizes that most industrial countries have already used up their rightful share of the world’s carbon budget—and that all future emissions should be allocated to developing countries.

Meanwhile, just 100 meters away, South Korea hosted an event with a different tone. Led by former Korean Prime Minister Han Seung-soo and former World Bank chief economist Nicholas Stern, the event focused on South Korea’s Green Growth Initiative—a new program that is aimed at transforming the country’s economy from the resource- and carbon-intensive model that drove its development to a new one based on the efficient use of energy and resources.

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Todd Stern and Xie Zhenhua

United States and China lead climate negotiators Todd Stern (left) and Xie Zhenhua sparred in separate public appearances following the Tianjin negotiations

Representatives of 194 governments met earlier this month in Tianjin, China, for another round of United Nations climate negotiations, followed in short order by several other meetings that will affect progress toward climate solutions. While the intense debate wasn’t quite at the scale of a Hollywood blockbuster, it made clear that countries must fight several key policy and political battles before they can agree to a new international climate treaty. Still, since the comparison of climate negotiations with movies has some tradition, let’s try to make some sense of what happened using film analogies.

The United States took a beating from China for its lack of progress on greenhouse gas pollution reductions, even as China came under fire only days later for currency policies that, in part, artificially lower the price of its renewable energy exports. The following week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading body of global climate scientists, had its turn in the spotlight, as it proposed new standards to avoid future embarrassing allegations of errors in its work, while moving forward with synthesizing humanity’s current knowledge of the threat of climate change.

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International youth invite delegates to hide their emissions by throwing plastic "emissions" balls through a parody of the LULUCF loophole rules (Photo courtesy SustainUS)

Logging loopholes, gigaton gaps, and other funny phrases await resolution from negotiators now that the United Nations climate talks have wrapped up in Bonn. From finance to forests, a lot of issues will be taken up by governments when they meet again in—surprise—Bonn, in August, and then again in China later this year. Waiting until the annual high-level climate summit in Cancun, Mexico, in November to address these issues would leave little chance of solving them by that summit’s end.

Land use, land use change, and forestry (LULUCF) issues dominated much of the discussion in Bonn. Many developed (Annex I) nations argued for historical “baseline” rules that would give them credit for more emissions reductions than they actually achieved. That baseline serves as a reference period for assessing how greenhouse gas emissions from forestry practices (mostly logging) and land use activities (creating or destroying wetlands, grasslands, etc.) have changed over time due to human activity. If developed countries get their way, the rules would allow carbon storage from forest growth to count toward their reductions, but ignore future emissions from fires and logging.

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The beaches of Cancun will be hosts of COP 16. After a lukewarm result from Copenhagen it will be up to the Mexican government to create the environment that will make a legally binding international agreement more likely. Beyond excellent logistics and security, the COP in Mexico will have to tackle the challenge of reaching consensus from a group of countries that appears to be even more fragmented after COP 15. The division has led many analysts to speculate that this year the Climate Change debate will shift to regional or G forums (G8, G8+5, G20 etc.), or even to bilateral negotiations between the most influential states. Reducing the number of Parties might be a good strategy to reach concrete results more efficiently, without the hassle of building consensus, but it threatens principles embedded in broader multilateralism (like equity and transparency). Historically, Mexico has been a keen adherent to these principles. The COP presidency will give the Mexicans an opportunity to uphold the UNFCCC process as the forum to reach a Climate Change global agreement.

Politically, the Mexican government has a large stake in the COP 16 success. President Felipe Calderon Hinojosa has made Climate Change a top priority for Mexico. Indeed, the Special Climate Change Program (PECC) published in the Official Gazette of the Federation late last summer offers a 51 MMt CO2e unilateral reduction target by 2012. On the international stage, Mexico’s Green Fund proposal is one of the most significant contributions from a single country to the international climate debate, designed to work effectively with broad participation from developed and developing countries alike. President Calderon was part of a handful of heads of state to drill down the Copenhagen Accord last December. And he has been active behind the scenes as well: Last November, along with Australia’s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, he brought in the Danish Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, to host an unofficial breakfast on Climate Change during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in November in Singapore. It’s safe to say that Mexico’s Administration has adopted Climate Change as the centerpiece of its foreign policy (some internal Mexican bureaucratic divisions non-withstanding).

The Mexican government faces the urgent need to “walk the talk.” A key piece for Mexico to meet its domestic emission reduction target will require the Energy Ministry to mandate the national public utility company (CFE) to double its renewable energy installed capacity from 3.3 to 7.6 % by 2012. This transition, neglected for too long, would mainly rely on expanding the wind energy base operated by private developers, mostly for self-supply – a scheme that makes CFE uncomfortable as it weakens its monopolistic power. Other actions contemplated in the PECC’s mitigating strategy like a REDD pilot project and the expansion of the “Green Mortgage” initiative will also face similar power struggles.

In the international sphere, consensus building needs to start now as well. President Calderon and his team need to enhance their facilitator role in the months leading up to COP 16. There is a strong opportunity this year to frame one of the most ambitious global agreements in history. It will require flexing high-level diplomatic muscle on three different fronts. First, they need to build on the willingness to cooperate from latecomer countries like China, India, Brazil and the United States to close the dividing line between Annex 1 and Non-Annex 1 countries. Second, it is essential for them to address the concerns of the most vulnerable countries, like Tuvalu, and least developed countries, like Mali, to ensure a smooth flow of discussions. Third, they should reach out to countries like Venezuela, Ecuador and Saudi Arabia that consider a Climate Change accord as another plot for developed countries to get their way. This three-tier strategy will have to move forward while keeping an eye on talks behind closed doors at forums in which Mexico does not participate, as well as U.S. domestic politics. Mexico appears to have the diplomatic willingness to lead on this effort, and its international climate initiatives are not only sound and well-received but are also fairly consistent with its domestic policy. If President Calderon and his team manage to succeed, negotiations at COP 16 could be as rejuvenating as a sunny day at the beach.

This blog has been contributed by Juan Pablo Osornio, International Policy Analyst at the Center for Clean Air Policy in Washington DC, and Jonathan Pinzon, Research Director at Cassals & Associates in Mexico City.

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