Tianjin, Washington, Busan: Crash of the Titans, Defense of the Nerds

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.

The Tianjin negotiations began ambitiously, with nations trying to find a series of policy compromises that could be agreed on by the end of the next meeting, which will begin in Cancun, Mexico, on November 29th and last for two weeks. Cancun will receive considerably greater press than the relatively quiet Tianjin meeting, though nothing on the scale of last year’s Copenhagen talks.

While most observers doubt that a global climate agreement could wrap up in Cancun, finalizing major portions of a new treaty there, such as in the areas of financing, clean technology transfer, and forest protection, could help clear the way for a final resolution a year later at the negotiations to be held in South Africa.

From this piecemeal perspective, the talks were somewhat successful, advancing, but not finalizing, agreements on preserving stores of carbon locked in forests, overcoming patent regulations impeding clean-technology sharing among countries, and providing tens of billions of dollars in near-term money to poorer countries facing expensive and deadly climate impacts.

From the standpoint of actually agreeing to reduce climate pollution, the meeting was the policy world’s equivalent of an art film war epic — long, drawn out dialogue by its main characters but little grand battling and no clear winner. Of the meeting’s two lead characters, the United States and China, the Chinese came closer to a victory, if a lack of consensus on stopping a global threat can be called victory.

Lead negotiator Xie Zhenhua landed blows on the United States for its lack of domestic climate legislation, while touting his nation’s efforts to curb greenhouse gas pollution. Even as the U.S. Congress failed to pass comprehensive climate legislation this year, and voters in California may decide to roll back the state’s ambitious greenhouse gas reduction law, China invested twice what the United States spent in 2009 on clean energy and has worked to improve its nationwide energy efficiency by 20 percent since 2005.

U.S. lead negotiator Todd Stern and others in the Obama administration hit back, saying China is not living up to its promises in the Copenhagen Accord and is refusing to agree to international verification of future claims of emissions reductions. As the largest greenhouse gas polluter and user of energy, China will face continued and increasing pressure to make progress, and transparent progress, on its emission reduction pledges. The United States will face them, too, as the number-two nation in both categories, and with the largest cumulative emissions record and still one of the highest per capita emissions rates in the world.

China also took a beating later that week in Washington, D.C., at the annual meeting of finance ministers in the International Monetary Fund. China faces growing pressure to stop controlling the value of its currency, the renminbi, which it keeps at somewhere between 25 and 40 percent below its market value. This makes China’s exports, including renewable energy products like solar panels and wind turbines, artificially cheap. China avoided a push, led by the United States, to allow its currency to fluctuate with the market, but pressure to do so grows. Wall Street’s Gordon Gecko would be proud.

If Tianjin and Washington were the lackluster acts one and two of trying to realize climate solutions, staging the third in a quiet South Korean city with a cast of climate scientists would not seem to make for an exciting finale. Yet, the 32nd Session of the IPCC in Busan, South Korea, ended with the most ambitious progress of the three meetings.

After a year of bullying in the media, this show wasn’t exactly Revenge of the Nerds, but climate scientists agreed to extended fact-checking reforms for their next major climate science publication, due in 2014, to keep out even the minuscule two errors (out of thousands of  pages of valid scientific data) that earned significant and negative media attention in the organization’s last report on the improving state of climate science and the growing danger of climate change. Embattled IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri called it his duty to stay on in his leadership role until his term expires in 2014.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the participants made continued progress on the synthesis and structure of their next comprehensive report on climate change, including a new focus on the possibility and peril of geoengineering. The report is expected to describe unabated future climate change impacts as even more severe and more likely than in earlier versions of the report.

After two weeks of this much action, observers and negotiators could use a break. With debate (much like the planet) only beginning to heat up before the major United Nations negotiations quickly approaching in the cruise ship hub of Cancun, climate watchers may want to pause for a moment for some lighter fare. How about an episode of Love Boat – just for a change?

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