Saturday, December 13, 2008

Glimmers of hope from Poznan and Beyond

Global climate talks at Poznan finished today, and along with developments in America, bring us glimmers of hope here at CGS.

Mexico pledges to reduce emissions

Expectations for the Poznan talks were modest, and some of the outcomes, such as unfreezing climate change adaptation funds for developing countries, were underwhelming. But one development has great implications: Mexico's pledge to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2050. As reported by Britain's Guardian newspaper, Mexico's pledge is one of the first by a developing country, and is meant to encourage others to make similar commitments.

Such commitments, made in good faith by developing countries, are a crucial part of breaking the climate deadlock (see previous post). This is not to underestimate the challenges that still face a new global climate treaty. Europe, once in the vanguard, has significantly weakened its emissions cap-and-trade system. Mexico's pledge, moreover, is contingent upon assistance from developed countries, meaning that the familiar bickering over who should pay for what will be amplified.

Nonetheless, this is real progress. For the first time, a large, important developing country (and a major oil producer, at that) has made a firm commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. If a few other middle-income countries follow suit, political lobbies in Europe and America can no longer accuse the developing world of refusing to share the pain of reducing global emissions. The UNFCCC's leadership, including the able Yvo de Boer, should focus their efforts over the next year on getting other developing countries to adopt such commitments.

North America takes the lead

Mexico's northern neighbor, meanwhile, took two important steps towards regaining the position of climate leadership it has forsaken for the past decade. President-elect Obama appointed Carol Browner, a former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, as his "climate czarina" in charge of coordinating the Administration's efforts in the climate and energy fields. Moreover, the State of California issued America's first comprehensive plan for reducing emissions. These are two very heartening signs that the United States will actually take on the "greatest challenge ever faced."

These, by the way, are Ms. Browner's words. While CGS might have preferred Al Gore, it is ecstatic that President-elect Obama has created a high-level post for energy and climate, which is of crucial importance for pushing an ambitious emissions reduction effort through the Congress and the federal bureaucracy (see previous post). Moreover, Ms. Browner really is an excellent choice. She knows how Washington works, and most importantly, she knows the scale of the climate problem. Her appointment will do much to show the world America is serious about tackling climate change. Bravo, Mr. Obama, you warm our hearts.

California, meanwhile, is characteristically at the forefront of innovation- in this case, a framework for ambitious emissions reductions. Importantly, the state has decided to auction all of the emissions permits under its cap-and-trade scheme, rather than to issue some of them for free, or for fixed sums. This is a pitfall that nearly ruined Europe's first attempt at an Emissions Trading Scheme. Further worthy of note is the allocation of emissions reductions by "wedge": toughened auto emissions reductions (yet to receive federal approval, due to Bush Administration obstructionism), increases in energy efficiency, and an expanded portfolio of renewable energy sources.

Wither China?

These developments partially eliminate two of the factors that underpin the Chinese government's unwillingness to commit to emissions reductions: a unified developing-country bloc that resists such commitments, and America's shameful intransigence on climate issues. Beijing is hence more vulnerable to international pressure to take on such emissions reduction commitments itself. But still not all that vulnerable: China retains great leverage, and in an age of global financial crisis, appeals to economic interest will fall on receptive ears. Moreover, as CGS has often noted, its protests that the West is responsible for most historical global emissions are valid.

So it's all the more urgent to develop a concrete framework for sharing the economic burden of global emissions reduction. The West should enhance its technology transfer and technical assistance initiatives, while China needs to take on some form of emissions reduction commitments. These could be confined to certain sectors or political jurisdictions (only the more developed urban areas, for example), but ecologically speaking, China can't be given a free ride.

That's the work the world has cut out for it over the next few years. But we go about the task with spirits lifted, and faith restored by seeing what visionary leadership can accomplish.

No comments:

Post a Comment