Rhein on Energy and Climate

It seems next to impossible for the international community to agree before the end of 2009, in just 12 months, on a meaningful package for mitigating climate change. The odds speak against.

First, it has taken the EU 12 months from proposals to adopting legislation, but only thanks to formidable preparative efforts by the EU Commission and member states. Two years ago, in March 2007, the heads of EU governments had already agreed on the basic targets to be reached by 2020, a 20 percent reduction of green house gases; and the Commission had presented detailed proposals for implementation as early as January 2008.

Second, at the global level, nothing but the 1997 Kyoto Protocol exists. It is obsolete and needs a comprehensive overhaul. Work on this overhaul is in its very preliminary stages. The UN climate Secretariat is very cautious and has not dared to make any proposals for a fundamental revision. And there is nothing like the well-geared EU decision making machinery at the UN.

Third, the new US Administration will be overwhelmed by other priorities in particular the economic crisis. It will not be able to focus on climate change in the first months of the year. The Senate continues to remain wary adopting the type of ambitious legislation needed to get China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, Russia, etc. on board.
President Obama so far seems satisfied with cutting back US emissions to 1990 levels. That falls short of the action expected by the other parties and necessary in view of addressing the dramatic deterioration of the global climate outlook.

Experienced US climate diplomats therefore suggest deferring the conclusion of the climate negotiations to 2010. Copenhagen would just become another stop on the long path of fighting climate change. Europe should reject such a perspective. If this sort of thinking were to spread, the likelihood of a failure in Copenhagen will rise dramatically, as the pressure would fade away.

The EU should therefore exert its persuasive charm to help putting the USA on a faster learning curve. Returning to 1990 emission levels would be quite a performance in view of the substantial increase of emissions since then. But the USA is so wasteful of energy that it should be able to almost halve its emissions by 2020 through focusing only energy efficiency.
An ambitious climate programme 2010-20 therefore need not lead to a big rise of electricity tariffs, as US lobbies try to make everybody believe. Moreover, for high-tech manufactured products electricity costs account for less than five percent of total costs.

American and EU climate experts should therefore explore ways and means for convincing the US Congress that an ambitious US climate programme need not hurt US industry.

In parallel, the EU should convince the UN Climate Secretariat to streamline the negotiating process.

In view of the short time available for concluding the negotiations, the international a community should not lose any time with secondary issues. Mitigation of climate change should be the focus; and this is essentially an issue for the big emitter countries, including the emerging countries. China, India, Brazil and Indonesia belong now to the ten biggest emitter countries. They must take commitments to make a new treaty meaningful. And to achieve effectiveness, it might be preferable to negotiate sector agreements with energy efficiency standards for automobiles, power plants and electric lighting instead of engaging in endless disputes on reduction targets that will be next to impossible to police.

Poor countries, with emissions of less than two tons per capita, should not have to take any commitments for reducing green house gases in the coming 10 years, provided they stop deforestation, for which the international community should compensate appropriately. They might therefore largely stay outside the proper negotiations.

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  1. Obama has indicated that a possible solution to get the US out of the economic rut is to create a green industry, that would give Americans some jobs back. If this is a path taken to help the economy then incentives will have to be put into place to get investments moving. Those incentives would have a larger value should they be a part of a world wide agreement. There could therefore be pressure on Washington to prioritise environmental issues.

    I ask however what incentives do other countries, such as China and Brazil, have in order not to stall the agreements and use the feeling of necessity to reach an agreement to gain more concessions?

    What fits the USA does not necessarily fit China or Brazil. For China the no. 1 priority is to stop building coal-fired power plants and bet on wind and nuclear power instead. The biggest contribution Brazil could make to fighting climate change would be to stop deforestation of the Amazonas virgin forests. For the USA it is relatively easy to build huge wind parks in the empty areas of the Middle West. Have a look at Lester Brown PLan B 3.0 where he explicits his bold vision for the USA going massively into wind energy.

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