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

Last month, the Indian Parliament devised legislation to replace the archaic Land Acquisition Act of 1894, the British colonial-era law that dictates terms for government acquisition of private land. The new law, which would be renamed The Right to Fair Compensation, Resettlement, Rehabilitation and Transparency in Land Acquisition Act, aims to address India’s chronic land disputes between developers and local communities (which I addressed in part in a previous blog on coal energy in India). The legislation is currently being reviewed by a Cabinet committee due to concerns expressed by several Cabinet ministers that the conditions stipulated for land acquisition are too steep for industry.

Industry interests hope that the new law will streamline the existing land acquisition process and resolve ongoing delays to project development. The legislation under negotiation would allow not only government but also private companies that provide “public” services to acquire land for industry and infrastructure projects, provided that they (1) obtain consent from at least 80 percent of affected landowners, (2) provide compensation at two to four times the market value for rural land and two times the market value for private land, and (3) assist displaced persons with resettlement.

Despite the more concrete procedure for land acquisition outlined in this draft legislation, some business groups, including the Confederation of Indian Industry, complain that the provisions will increase costs to industry and make some projects unviable. It is with these industry interests in mind that the Cabinet committee is reviewing the legislation.

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coal, development, India, land acquisition, land use, negotiations

With the United Nations “Rio+20” Conference fast approaching, the word “sustainable” is more present than ever – including in our own State of the World 2012 publication – sometimes to the point of excess. For low-lying island nations, however, “sustainability” is more than the mild, consensual definition of the United Nations: it is really about maintaining the environmental conditions necessary to sustain human life as we know it. Many countries, regions, and cities fear the potential consequences of runaway climate change, be it desertification, droughts, or increasingly frequent storms. What makes the cases of countries like Kiribati, Tuvalu, Micronesia, and the Maldives so unique is that their very existence as sovereign states is at stake, and some of their younger citizens might live to see that existence brought to an end – the IPCC (2007) has predicted 0.5 to 1.5 meters of sea-level rise before the century is over.

For low-lying island nations, climate change and sea-level rise are not really a matter for debate, but already a threatening feature of everyday life (Source: The Atlantic.com)

Whether that prediction turns out to be overly optimistic or gloomy is still to be determined, but low-lying island nations are not passively waiting to find out. Despite their remarkably low carbon-footprints, they are trying to lead by example when it comes to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions: while an international treaty would only, by the timeline set at the 2011 climate change negotiations in Durban, South Africa, come into force in 2020, the Maldives and Tuvalu (among others) have pledged to become carbon-neutral by that date. But these nations have understood that due to natural – as well as political – inertia, more emissions and increased sea-level rise are already locked in. This is the basic reasoning behind the islands’ adaptation policies, which are only as varied as they are extreme. For instance, though the President of Kiribati Anote Tong admitted it sounded “like something from science fiction”, the country seriously considered building offshore floating islands and higher seawalls last year, for a total cost of about US$ 3 billion – quite a challenge for a country with a GDP of US$ 200 million in 2011 (about US$ 6,000 per capita).

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Climate Change, COP15, developing countries, electricity, emissions reductions, energy, green economy, Kiribati, low-carbon, low-lying island states, Maldives, negotiations, renewable energy, renewable energy finance, sustainable development, Tuvalu, UNFCCC

The president of COP 17, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, speaks at the final plenary session of the climate change meetings in Durban, South Africa (Source: Worldwatch).

As the new year begins, climate negotiators have begun to move on from their engagement at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa. After two weeks of intense negotiations on the future of the international regime to combat climate change, they bring home pieces of an ambiguous mandate—but also some critical steps forward. Below, we discuss some of the outcomes of those exhilarating talks in early December.

Symbolic survival of the Kyoto Protocol

Under European Union leadership, signatories of the Kyoto Protocol agreed to enter a second commitment period for reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, extending the treaty terms through 2017 or 2020. This symbolically salvaged the agreement—the only existing climate treaty with internationally binding reduction targets. However, the 27 EU countries, together with Australia, New Zealand, Norway, and Switzerland, are the only countries to take on these targets, and they agreed to do so only under the condition that all major countries agree to a new, truly global and comprehensive climate treaty, if necessary outside the Kyoto structure.

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China, Climate Change, developing countries, emissions reductions, European Union, Green Climate Fund, India, negotiations, UNFCCC, United States

In Part 1 of this blog, we analyzed the global CO2 emission trends published recently by the International Energy Agency (IEA), as well as the high divergence of emission trends among countries. In this follow-up, we discuss how these trends can inform negotiations at the UN climate summit that began this week in Durban, South Africa.

Industrialized countries as a group have achieved significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Although national efforts vary greatly and a rebound in emissions is expected with economic recovery, the IEA estimates that “developed countries” (as defined in Annex I of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) are on track to reach their target of reducing emissions 5.2 percent below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012, as agreed to under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

The numbers look somewhat different at the country level, however. The United States, the only major developed country that did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, has seen a 6.7 percent increase in CO₂ emissions since 1990, according to the IEA. The U.S. is the world’s second highest CO2emitter after China, which has more than three times as many inhabitants.

Certain signatories of the Kyoto Protocol, including Canada and Japan, have not stuck with their reduction commitments, clearly a sign of weakness of the treaty. But the agreement is functioning well for those who strive to abide by it. There is no doubt that Kyoto has prompted regional, national, and sub-federal action on climate protection and sustainable agriculture, energy, and transportation in many parts of the world.

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China, Climate Change, coal, developing countries, emissions reductions, India, negotiations, UNFCCC, United States

The 17th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change begins today in Durban, South Africa (Source: UNFCCC).

This week the 17th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) begins. In Durban, South Africa, delegations from countries around the world will continue negotiating greenhouse gas reductions in order to prevent global warming from spinning out of control. So it is just in time that the International Energy Agency (IEA) releases its latest statistics on global CO2 emissions.

The provided figures contain CO₂ emission source breakdowns by fuel, sector and region over the period 1971 to 2009. According to the data, nearly two thirds of worldwide emissions come from two sectors – electricity and heat generation (41 percent) as well as transport (23 percent). Remaining emissions come from industrial processes (20 percent), residential (6 percent), and a multitude of additional sources (10 percent). Regarding energy, coal is the leading CO₂ emission source, accounting for 43 percent of those emissions, followed by oil at 37 percent and natural gas at 20 percent.

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China, Climate Change, coal, developing countries, emissions reductions, India, negotiations, UNFCCC, United States

As conventional oil – oil extracted using traditional oil wells – becomes increasingly uneconomical to extract, unconventional sources are being turned to as a solution to meet the global demand for petroleum-based energy sources. One unconventional source shown to have abundant reserves is oil sands, also known as tar sands. Canada is home to one of the largest oil sands deposits on earth.  Despite the promising amount of reserves that can be added to the global supply from this supply, the substance, which resembles cold molasses when at room temperature, is sparking a lot of controversy amongst public opinion and is playing a large role in defining U.S. energy infrastructure priorities.

With the addition of oil sands to its proven reserves list, Canada is now second place amongst oil-producing nations, behind Saudi Arabia. Despite the promising amount of reserves that can be added to the global supply from oil sands, the topic is sparking a lot of controversy amongst public opinion and is playing a large role in defining U.S. energy infrastructure priorities.

Bitumen, the substance found in oil sands, was at one time light crude oil. Geologists theorize that tens of millions of years ago, oil was pushed up during the formation of the Rocky Mountains, allowing it to reach depths shallow and cool enough for bacteria to thrive, which degraded the oil to bitumen. Bitumen is not oil or tar, but a semi-solid degraded form of oil. Once extracted, bitumen deposits can be sold as raw bitumen, or upgraded to synthetic crude oil frequently refined for use in essentials such as asphalt, gasoline, and jet fuel. The upgrading is done by increasing the ratio of hydrogen to carbon by either removing carbon (coking) or adding hydrogen (hydro-cracking).

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development, green economy, negotiations, Obama, oil sands, Pipeline, Protest, Tar Sands, United States

 

New research suggests that oil reserves off the coast of Cuba could be comparable to those of current oil-exporting countries such as Ecuador and Columbia. Several geologic studies, including those from the U.S. Geological Survey, estimate Cuba’s Gulf reserves could be as much as 5 billion to 9 billion barrels of crude. The Cuban government has designated 59 blocks in Gulf waters encompassing 43,200 square miles (112,000 square kilometers) for private energy companies to drill deep-water test wells.

Drilling off Cuba will likely take place 100 miles (161 kilometers) from Key West, home to North America’s only living coral barrier reef and the third largest such reef system in the world. The U.S. government opening communication and coordination with Cuba would be mutually beneficial, allowing the opportunity to create the least impact in the ecologically diverse oceans that the two countries share.

Drilling will likely take place 100 miles (161 kilometers) from Key West, home to North America’s only living coral barrier reef and the third largest such reef system in the world. It is part of a productive marine ecosystem of interconnected habitats including patch and bank reefs, seagrass meadows, soft bottom and hard bottom communities, and coastal mangroves. It is one of the most biologically diverse assemblages of marine life in North America. Due to its ecological significance, it has been classified as a Marine Sanctuary.

Although U.S. oil companies are eager to get involved in drilling efforts south of Florida, the 48-year old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba severely limits interaction with the communist-run country. Of the 59 blocks designated as deep-water test sites open for international investment, 22 blocks have been contracted out, all to state-controlled companies including Spain’s Repsol in partnership with Norway’s Statoil, Russia’s Gazprom, India’s ONGC-Videsh, Malaysia’s Petronas, and Venezuela’s PDVSA.

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Cuba, developing countries, energy security, negotiations, United States, US