So, it seems like I owe the Polish government an apology.

Last month I wrote a first blog about Poland and its future role as host of the UN climate talks, insisting on its ambiguities towards the diplomatic process and pointing out, for instance, that it had made the rather unconventional decision to host the negotiations in a football stadium.

Polish Environment Minister Marcin Korolec (pictured) has made the Polish leadership's position on the climate negotiations clear, but Polish civil society and environmental groups are optimistic that COP19 will see some successes. (Source: www.um.warszawa.pl)

Well, after a “field trip” in Warsaw, I’ve learned that the National Stadium is one of the things that the country holds dearest, and that this venue choice is actually a sign that Poland is taking its role as President of the UNFCCC 19th Conference of the Parties (COP19) quite seriously. So, please accept my deepest apologies, or as I should say, przepraszam.

This correction, sadly, does not apply to most of the other points I have made about Poland’s stance on climate and energy issues. Since my last blog, Environment Minister Martin Korolec, in recent comments to a news agency, bluntly closed the door on European climate policy-making before 2015 (the deadline year that countries have set for themselves to come up with a global, binding agreement for climate action within the UN framework). This is a notable difference with the pre-Copenhagen situation, when the European Union managed to put together the “20-20-20” package before the 2009 climate talks, as a way to lead by example and encourage other countries to step up their ambitions.

But Poland has its own ideas on how the EU should approach climate change leadership from now on. Not, of course, by interfering with sovereign domestic energy choices (ahem), but rather backing the production of electric cars, setting a target for reducing fossil fuel imports, and finally ending energy subsidies. Though these suggestions may seem like good common sense, it’s not too difficult to imagine the rationale behind them: insisting on reducing fossil fuel imports would effectively reduce the EU’s economic dependence on Russia, a country with which Poland has a long, often conflict-ridden past; while opposing clean-energy funding and carbon pricing helps protect Poland’s own coal industry development.

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Climate Change, COP19, Copenhagen, Europe, European Union, negotiations, Poland, UNFCCC

Sometimes it looks as if the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change have bet large amounts of money against themselves on the success of climate negotiations.

"Are we done yet?” Poland has hardly been an enthusiastic actor in UNFCCC negotiations (Source: IISD.ca)

Countries are now engaged in an excruciatingly slow race to reach an agreement by 2015, which would for the first time commit both the developed and the developing world under “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force” (ah, the beauty of UNFCCC language…), in order to meet the goal of 2 degrees warming by the end of the century, the “safe” limit that was agreed upon at the 2009 Copenhagen summit.

Given what’s at stake, and the inefficiencies inherent to the UN process, you’d think that the world’s nations would make sure that not a minute is lost in the talks. And yet, after a Qatari Presidency that left everyone with the vivid memory of conference chairman Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyah literally hammering out a last-minute deal, Poland has been designated to host the 19th annual Conference of the Parties (COP19) next October.

It may not be obvious, at first sight, why Poland hosting the climate talks seems like a step backwards. After all, the ambitions around COP19 are not to come up with a global agreement, but rather to make substantial advances on pressing issues in preparation of the Durban Platform deadline, fixed for 2015 (and a very likely French Presidency). But it helps to remember that the last COP on the road to the rather underachieving Copenhagen Conference in 2009 took place in Poznań, which could say something about the capacity of a Polish COP Presidency to pave the way for ambitious deal-making. These fears, of course, are not enough to dismiss Poland as a valuable host. What weighs heavier is that the country does have a history of blocking progress in climate negotiations, particularly at the European Union level.

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Climate Change, climate negotiations, COP19, Copenhagen, emissions reductions, Europe, European Union, low-carbon, negotiations, Poland, UNFCCC

Following the call to action and sweeping plan of attack offered by President Obama during his Second Inaugural Address last month and State of the Union this week, it is clear that he has made climate change a priority in his second term.  From outlining the need to increase renewable energy research and installations to setting an ambitious goal of improving efficiency in homes and businesses by 50 percent over the next twenty years, President Obama’s wide-reaching plan has the potential to once again make the United States a global leader in environmental action.

President Obama discusses Hurricane Sandy, an extreme weather event that has been linked with climate change, with disaster response officials. Obama has reaffirmed his intention to fight climate change in his second term (Source: The White House)

While President Obama’s renewed commitment to address climate change has raised hopes, it is important to review the successes and failures of his last four years in order to set realistic expectations for what is possible during his second term.

Early during his first term, the United Nations climate negotiations in Copenhagen presented President Obama with a major international opportunity to demonstrate how his Administration would differ from the previous eight years of the United States playing foil to international environmental cooperation during the Bush Era.  The Obama Administration did not rise to the challenge, instead offering minor concessions while continuing to push for stalling the negotiations until 2015 and beyond, effectively deferring the responsibility for an international treaty to the next Presidential term.

Domestically, Obama’s environmental track record fared somewhat better.  The Administration has advanced environmental protection by increasing vehicle mileage standards, expanding protected areas, strengthening air quality standards, and raising federal investment in clean energy to the highest levels in US history.  On the other hand, the Obama Administration failed to oversee comprehensive climate legislation, and has drawn out the decision on the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

Of course, there are some extenuating circumstances that Obama faced in his first term that made success more difficult to achieve.  While a lack of political readiness or will to move may be to blame for the Administration’s lack of forward progress at international negotiations, domestically the Obama team’s success was tempered by a divided congress, the prolonged economic depression, and a desire to remain an appealing candidate throughout a hotly contested re-election. 

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Climate Change, Copenhagen, emissions reductions, EPA, negotiations, United States
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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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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194, 2010, 2014, 24 and 40 percent, 32nd Session, Busan, Cancun, China, Clash of the Titans, climate, climate impacts, Copenhagen, cruise ship, currency, emissions, forest, geoengineering, Gordon Gecko, greenhouse gas, Hollywood, Ingergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, International Monetary Fund, Love Boat, movies, November 26, patents, pollution, Rajendra Pachauri, renminbi, Revenge of the Nerds, technology transfer, Tianjin, Todd Stern, United Nations, United States, verification, Wall Street, Washington D.C., Xie Zhenhua
Robin Hood Tax campaign logo

A financial levy similar to that proposed in the Investing in Our Future Act, called the Robin Hood Tax, is gaining support in the United Kingdom.

It’s been called The Robin Hood Tax, the Tobin Tax, and the less sexy Financial Transactions Tax or Currency Transaction Levy. According to Congressman Pete Stark (D-CA13), who introduced a bill on July 20 to create a version of it in the United States, the proper name is the even less thrilling Investing in Our Future Act of 2010 (which is at least better than calling it by its bill number, House Resolution 5783). But what is it, and what does it have to do with climate change?

Whatever the name, the concept is relatively straightforward: deduct a very small percentage (Stark’s bill suggests 0.005 percent, or five-thousandths of one percent) from the transfer of large amounts of money between people and/or companies, especially the exchange of one currency into another. The rationales for this charge are many. While the fee makes the value of a single transfer of money almost unnoticeably less (just 5 pennies off for a tourist converting 1,000 U.S. dollars to Euros), it makes the shuttling of money thousands of times between different bank accounts or currencies much costlier. That kind of back-and-forth trading happens routinely in currency speculations that, according to many commentators, contributed decisively to the recent financial crisis. Most versions of the charge would exempt small amounts of money ($10,000 each year per company or per person in the Stark bill), keeping the burden off vacationers and small-time traders while discouraging risky repetitive maneuvers by banks and hedge funds.

Just how much money could this fee raise, and where would the funds go?

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$100 billion, $10000, $28 billion, 0.005%, 14 percent, 20 percent, 2020, 350 economists, 40 percent, 5 pennies, adaptation, bank accounts, bill, charge, child care, Climate Change, climate financing, climate funding, climate solutions, Congressman Pete Stark, Copenhagen, currency exchange, currency speculation, Currency Transaction Levy, D-CA13, developing world, financial crisis, Financial Transactions Tax, Global Fund to Fight AIDS TB and Malaria, hedge funds, House Resolution 5783, infectious diseases, invest, Investing in Our Future Act of 2010, July 20, levy, mitigation, Robin Hood Tax, Sherwood Forest, Tobin Tax, tourist, traders, United States, US$400 billion, vacationers

IRENA logoStarting yesterday, a new international organization dedicated to the “rapid development and deployment of renewable energy worldwide” officially powered up. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) will function much like the International Energy Agency (IEA): collecting and analyzing statistics, providing policy suggestions, facilitating partnerships and financing across countries, promoting research and development, and creating technical codes and standards—but only for renewable energy. Still, significant challenges await the fledgling agency if it hopes to promote renewable energy worldwide. An earlier attempt at an international hydrogen fuel agency provides a cautionary example.

One question is what counts as renewable. The agency’s website is filled with descriptions and pictures of wind turbines, solar panels, and even waste-to-biogas plants in China. While no universal definition of “renewable energy” exists, IRENA has made clear what it won’t address—nuclear is out, but so is energy efficiency.

As Frauke Theis reported earlier in this blog, the IEA sees a big place for technologies like nuclear power and carbon capture and storage (CCS) in reducing greenhouse gas pollution. Not so IRENA. Before the Copenhagen climate negotiations, IRENA issued a statement condemning the IEA’s support for nuclear and CCS in carbon markets. Energy efficiency receives much better treatment, at least gaining mention in the agency’s 2010 Work Programme where nuclear does not, but it is clear that the focus will be on promoting electricity production from renewable energy, and not on energy savings.

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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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Starting last week, international climate negotiators entered a new round of discussions to prepare for the next Conference of the Parties, scheduled for Cancun, Mexico, this December. Here we all are once again, in the lobby of the Maritim Hotel in Bonn, and the question after the first week of negotiation is: Are we moving forward? It’s certainly true that the shock of last December’s Copenhagen summit is slowly fading and everyone is actually getting back to work. We’ve also taken up discussions on content again, after a depressing three-day session in April on purely procedural matters.

UNFCCC Talks in Bonn, Germany

The UNFCCC talks in Bonn, Germany, image courtesy of UNFCCC

The agenda now looks pretty much the same as it has in every session for the last two years. This is good, because it means that we are getting back to work and that all the past effort was not in vain. But it is also disturbing, because it means that we are likely talking in the same old circles that by most accounts did not lead to a result in Copenhagen. There are slight shifts in the agenda items, though. Increasingly more emphasis (and negotiation time) is being given to questions surrounding the measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) of both mitigation and adaptation actions, as well as financial support for these actions.

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Climate Change, Copenhagen, development, finance, UNFCCC