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Climate negotiations 101

As the UN advances talks on climate change, GlobalPost contributor Eric J. Lyman explains what you need to know, including what China's plans are, which proposals are likely to be ratified and why the U.S. has finally thrown its hat in the ring.



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Below is the transcript of the Correspondent Call with Eric J. Lyman


Passport: Good morning and welcome! I’m David Case, Editor of GlobalPost Passport. This morning’s Correspondent Call is brought to you live from Newburyport, Mass. where Passport is meeting with the Newburyport Democrats. Good morning, everybody. And two Republicans. Today we’ll be talking with GlobalPost contributor Eric J. Lyman about international climate change talks. These negotiations could have a profound impact on our lives, on the way we heat our homes and power our cars and on the quality of life for future generations. But to outsiders, the negotiations often seem opaque and inscrutable. Eric will decipher the latest developments and explain what you need to know about the international community’s efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions. A formal Wall Street Journal bureau chief and one of GlobalPost’s more prolific contributors, Eric has covered climate change politics for many years and is currently on location at the Bangkok climate talks, one of the final UN-sponsored meetings before the December summit in Copenhagen. Welcome, Eric!


Eric Lyman: Thanks, thanks David.


Passport: There’s going to be a slight delay between Eric and I given that this is half-way around the world between Bangkok and Massachusetts, and also I’m working on a very interesting speakerphone here in Newburyport, so hopefully this will all go well. Before we begin, I have a few announcements. First, remember that the call is being recorded and will be posted on Passport’s website. The call is meant to be informal. As usual, I will lead a Q and A that will last for about twenty minutes, but if you’d like to ask a question, please feel free to jump in. I would invite the audience here in Newburyport to jump in, to raise your hand if you have a question as well and I will have to repeat the question into the phone. You lines are now muted, but if you’d like to ask a question, you can press *6, which will un-mute your line. Please identify yourself, be mindful of the time, and keep questions relevant to the topic we’re currently discussing. We’ll also have ten minutes at the end of the call for unrelated questions. So, we’re ready to go Eric. Can you briefly bring us up to date on these climate change negotiations? This has all been going on since the early 1990s, hasn’t it?


Lyman: Well, in one way, it has. It all started in 1992, there was an Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and that created three UN agencies and one of them deals with climate change. So they started the work on trying to create an international treaty to curb greenhouse gasses and they succeeded after five years and that was the Kyoto Protocol. And the Kyoto Protocol now, is about to expire in 2012, which is right around the corner in multilateral organizational terms and so we’re in the process now of trying to create what will be the successor to the Kyoto Protocol. If everything goes according to plan for the Danes, it will be called something like the Copenhagen Agreement, or something like that because the meetings are going to be held there.


Passport: Is there a grand vision for what the world leaders hope will come out of the Copenhagen agreement in December, or are there a few competing visions at this point that are currently in the lead?


Lyman: Technically, there are six draft documents that are in circulation, but most of them are put out to make a point, with the idea that they won’t be taken very seriously. One was written by the United States, but that falls into that category. One was written by Tuvalu, the Pacific Island nation, but the two main ones are both produced in the UN context. In the lingo, they’re called the KP text and LCA text. KP just means the Kyoto Protocol, which would create a continuation of the agreement that already exists and the LCA one stands for Long-term Cooperative Action. One of these two, or a merger of the two, is likely to be the post-Kyoto agreement. The difference being the Kyoto Protocol only requires action on the part of about three dozen wealthy, well-to-do, wealthy, industrialized countries. Basically, the poorest country is Romania or Bulgaria. So every country in the world that is that rich or richer and the rest of the world is not required to do anything. And the LCA track is much more far-reaching and there, debate is very furious over how wide-ranging the obligations should be. Should economies in transition like China, India, Brazil, South Africa, should they be required to take on commitments after 2012? And that’s the kind of negotiation that going on here in Bangkok.


Passport: Ok, Eric, can you give us a sense of which one of these two main tracks is actually more likely to become policy?


Lyman: It really depends on who you talk to. If you speak to people from developing countries, they are all in favor of just having the KP track, the Kyoto Protocol track, because that obviously does not require them to take on any commitments, and the wealthy countries, you know, North America, most of Europe, certain countries in Asia, some of the countries in the former Soviet sphere, those countries are all in favor of the LCA track and the reason being that they would like to get economies in transition and poor countries on board in doing something. Most of them agree that those countries should not be obligated to take on the same level of commitment that wealthy countries take on, but that something should take place. The US proposal, for example, is that those countries be required to take certain steps without requiring results. For example, they should be required to promote hybrid vehicles in their countries or something, without percentages, or how many they need to distribute or anything like that, and that’s what the US is championing. One interesting footnote is, in the KP track, the US does not have a voice at all, because it never ratified the Kyoto Protocol. It’s only one of two countries in the world that didn’t. And so the subset of countries that can negotiate on the KP text and the LCA text is almost identical, and the exclusion is that the US does not have a voice in the KP track.


Passport: It sounds like you have a real divide between north and south, between rich countries and poor countries, there in Bangkok. Is that the way things are panning out?


Lyman: That’s right. It’s not just in Bangkok, but this is the way things have been for quite a while. Some people say this is a blinking match between the US and China, with the US representing the view of those who would like to see the LCA track go forward and China representing those who would like to see the KP track go forward. I actually wrote a story for GlobalPost about that after the Major Economies Forum, which was in Italy. This is really the central question. And you can see the argument that both sides have. The United States passed by China, now China is the world’s greatest polluter and India is third, and will probably pass the United States in 2013, 2014. So the United States would argue, what’s the point of wealthy countries doing something if the first and third biggest polluters in the world aren’t required to do anything at all. It would be quite futile for wealthy countries to try to do something when those countries can continue to do whatever they want to do. But, the poor countries, from their perspective, say, the reason we’re in this mess, with the CO2, if you accept the thesis that this is what’s causing global warming, as the process does, is the reason that there’s so much CO2 in the air is because of these rich countries and they should be required to take the first steps in order to confront it. They’re the ones that benefited from it. They got wealthy because of their industrial revolutions that have not yet happened in the poorer countries, and they should be required to take steps to confront the problem before. And the last thing I’ll say on that is that rich countries say that they did do something, which is the Kyoto Protocol, which was written and enforced twelve years ago. And poor countries counter with saying that they haven’t really done much, which is true. World-wide emissions are hardly lower because of the Kyoto Protocol, with two exceptions, there are only two countries that have managed to reduce their emissions and were not part of the former Soviet sphere where their economies collapsed after 1990, which is the comparison, the only countries that did not suffer an economic collapse in the early 90s and yet have still managed to reduce emissions since then are England, UK, where they got rid of coal in the 90s and that resulted in lower emissions, and then Denmark, which is just barely below 1990 levels and the reason for that is that they’ve had almost zero population growth, but they do have a lot of regulations limiting motor vehicles and mass transit and recycling and things like that that are making an impact and that’s the great success story, is Denmark. But it’s a country of four million people and even in that success story, they haven’t reduced it enough.


Passport: Great. How likely is it that the Copenhagen summit will actually produce an agreement? Are people optimistic there in Bangkok? Or it sounds like we’re a far way away from an agreement at this point.


Lyman: Yeah, we are a long way away. And coming into Bangkok, my belief was that there would be some kind of an agreement that would come out of the December talks, but that it might not be complete. That they would declare victory, but that there would be a few areas that would be left undone and that would be completed in 2010. But today, I had an interview with Gabor, who is the top climate change official for the United Nations and he opened the door to the possibility that the Copenhagen talks might be completed in 2010, that they might not be adjourned, but that they might just take a recess in December and meet again in May or June to complete the talks in order to buy some extra time. It’s not something that a lot of folks want to talk about because it dissuades countries from showing their cards in December. But there is that possibility. And there is a precedent for that. In 2000, the negotiations that took place started in December; the same negotiations were then completed in May. But there was a different reason for that being that when the negotiations took place in December, we expected to know who the US President was, and we didn’t because of the court case between George Bush and Al Gore. But it does prove that there’s a legal framework for suspending the meetings and coming back six months later.


Passport: Ok, at this point I want to invite callers to ask any questions if they have any… I’ll continue with the questioning, if not… does anyone here in Newburyport have a question?


The question is: what influence would cap and trade legislation in the United States have on the negotiations there? And Eric, maybe you want to talk more broadly about the US role in the negotiations and the position that the Obama administration is taking as well.


Lyman: Well, I’ll start with your comment, David, and then come back to the question, because I think it’s a good start to it. You know, the Bush administration announced that it wasn’t going to sign the Kyoto Protocol back in 2001 and US officials were sort of pariahs in the process for many, many year. They did sort of come around and stared making some compromises toward the very end, but in April, the UN hosted its first meetings in April of this year and Obama officials were officially there, not just observers and when the delegate stood up and said that the US intended to take a leadership role and be involved in the process, and the days of trying to stall and set up obstacles were gone and so forth, those comments received twelve minutes of standing applause and the head of the United Nations had to fight tears rolling down his cheeks. But, since then, not much has been done. And now, for the US, the honeymoon is probably over and people have been saying to the US, well, where is this leadership role that you promised back in April? And the US, in its defense, said, look, we’ve only been in office eight and a half months and you guys have been doing this for twelve years. But, really we haven’t seen much action on part of the US. The leadership is engaged, but leadership role hasn’t really panned out, at least not up to this point. Now, the question about cap and trade is a very good one because on a purely technical perspective, it would have a lot to do with the process, there are already cap and trade systems everywhere. There’s one in Oceania between Australia and New Zealand, there’s one in Europe, there’s one in the works in Latin America that’s further advanced than the idea of the one in the US and so on. So, it wouldn’t break any new ground, but everybody here in Bangkok, all the delegates from every part of the world, wants to see a cap and trade system in the United States and the reason for that is that they believe that will indicate that the US really is involved, that it’s not just words. That’ll be the event that’ll prove that the US is putting its money where its words are.


Passport: Very good. Do we have any other questions? Ok, is it possible, Eric, to determine a common denominator in terms of the concerns of the major nations?


Lyman: Of what nations?


Passport: The major nations.


Lyman: Well, I think there are two big obstacles that I think not only major nations, but also minor nations, are sort of focusing on and the rest of it is sort of window dressing. One, we sort of touched upon it earlier, the key word, or the buzz word for it is “mitigation,” but what it really means is reducing green house gas emissions. And so how we’re going to do that and what countries are going to be required to do that and so on. So that is one of the two issues. And the other is “adaptation.” Some people believe that no matter what you do, there will be some changes in the climate. So poor countries need a hand in adapting to those changes. You know, monitoring things so they can have early prediction, sea walls, better construction techniques, advanced infrastructure, and so on. And last year, the UN created a fund for that, but there’s hardly any money in it, $1.5 million, or something like that. Where the World Bank says that it needs $75-100 billion a year. So it’s a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent. And so how do we put money into that in order to help poor countries adapt. Without that money, poor countries are unlikely to sign any kind of agreement. So these are the two main issues and all the other issues are things like how to handle forestry and how to fax fuel and transportation, vehicles, transfer of technology to poor countries, all these things are sort of secondary. The idea is that if these two main issues can be solved, the rest of the issues will fall into place.


Passport: Ok, we have a couple other questions? The question is about the intense competition between the different players and how that’s blocking potential progress in the talks. The fact that making cuts would mean an economic sacrifice within the countries and there is little political will at this point to actually go ahead with that.


Lyman: That’s an interesting point on a couple of different levels. You know, the UN process is based on one country, one vote, and that’s much to the chagrin of big countries like the United States or the big European countries or Japan, or whatever, because a small island nation, a small country like Tuvalu, which is quite an active player here, has the same voice as the United States does. So the process really lends itself to countries throwing up roadblocks. And the point that taking on commitments requires a certain amount of sacrifice is a very important one. What advocated of the process will tell you that if everybody does it, then there’s no competitive disadvantage. If every country spent one half of one percent of their GDP to fight climate change, then all the countries would be equally rich compared to each other after the fact. What the difference is, is that Europe, for example, is signed up and is taking steps in this area and the United States isn’t. So the United States has a competitive advantage compares to Europe. And that’s just one example. But if every country signed up to do it, then the competitive advantage would be eliminated, as would disadvantage. But the real question is, are countries going to sign up for something that’s going to be quite expensive at a time when there’s an economic crisis going on? And the answer is, surprisingly, according to most economists, yes. It’s a perfect time to be doing this because the kind of spending that you need to do creates jobs and it could be akin to kind of a New Deal, like the one Roosevelt put forward during the Depression. And you can create jobs that won’t pollute, invest in infrastructure, take various steps and incentives toward new kinds of cars, and that you can give a little boost across the board in industry because countries are going to be spending this money in stimulus anyway, why not spend it in green stimulus? There’s a lot to be said for the idea that if you’re going to invest in your economy, you might as well invest to reinvent it to some degree, in terms of environmental friendliness. You know, a report came out only two days ago, it was released here in Bangkok, from the International Energy Agency, and they showed that worldwide emissions are actually lower this year than last year. And that’s not a surprise, I suppose, because factories are producing less and people are traveling less and maybe setting their air conditioners to a more environmentally friendly level and so on. And where worldwide emissions generally grow about 3 percent a year, we’re at about 3 percent lower this year, which means that at the end of 2009, we’ll be at 2007 levels, and the prognostication is that it might be flat in 2010, so by 2010, we might still be at 2007 levels, and then if it goes back to normal in 2011, we’ll be at 2008 levels by 2012, so we basically have a free four years in terms of emissions, without getting any worse. And a lot of people are saying here, well, that gives us license to procrastinate another four years. But even advocates are saying that’s a misnomer, because the long-term modeling shows that in a few years we’ll be back on track if business as usual takes place. And we should really take this time in invest and these sorts of things. And maybe if an agreement is reached in Copenhagen at the end of the year, a coal fire plant that was postponed this year for a lack of money, next year will be a solar plant, or a wind power plant, or natural gas, or something cleaner. And so this is a big debate because it’s obviously not a time when governments want to be writing big checks. But economists say that in the meantime and the long-term, it’s the right thing to do. So we’ll see how countries react to that.


Passport: We have another question here from Newburyport. The question is: 1990 is the base year for climate change. What is the percentage that we’re shooting for for cutting gas emissions by 2020 and then 2050? What are they discussing there in Bangkok?


Lyman: Well, the EU wants to reduce emissions by 20 percent, compared to 1990 levels, by 2020. And they say they’ll reduce them by 30 percent of 1990 levels by 2020, if other countries will take similar steps. But, aside from that, the 2020 figures are not universal. The 2050 figures are looking for something in the range of 25-40 percent reduction. And once they have that, they can extrapolate backwards and figure out some intermediate targets. But, one of the things that’s thrown things off is there’s also an argument about what the baseline here should be. The Kyoto Protocol compares everything to 1990, which was a good thing of England and the Soviet bloc, for example, because all those economies went through serious transitions after 1990, but US emissions between 1990 and 2005 increased something like 17 or 18 percent, I believe. And so the US doesn’t to be required to reduce those emissions, the ones that increased between 1990 and 2005, so they’re using 2005 as a baseline year. For similar reasons, Japan wants to use 2000 as a baseline year. And there are other proposals around that allow countries to pick their own baseline year, whatever is most advantageous for them, so while the Soviet bloc countries can continue to use 1990, while other countries, if that’s what it takes to get them to sign, could even use a future date, say 2012, as a baseline year. And there are a couple problems with that. One is that it really makes for an apples and oranges kind of comparisons. People look at percentages, but you’re not comparing the same types of periods. But also, if you have a forward-looking baseline year, if you’re going to compare your emission reductions to some future date like 2012 or 2013, it’s really an incentive to pollute as much as you can between now and then to get a figure that’s as bloated as possible, so it’s easy to reduce from that point, which would be counterproductive. So what people in the UN say, when they really want to make sure that whatever the emissions reduction target is, that everyone agrees on a single baseline year. And the big candidates are 1990, 2000 and 2005 right now. And if it’s 1990, then the ultimate reduction would be 25-40 percent. That’s by 2050. And the reduction range is what the Intergovernmental Panel on climate change; they’re the ones who won a Nobel Prize with Al Gore, what they say is necessary to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius. So, 2 degrees Celsius is where we really start to see high levels of glaciers melting, and all kinds of problems with severe weather, with floods and droughts and so on. So that’s the ultimate goal.


Passport: Eric, that last response, I think the take-away lesson from that is that these climate change negotiators who fly around the world from Bonn to Barcelona to Bangkok, those guys really have long-term job security, don’t they?


Lyman: (Laughter) Yeah, that’s a good point… This isn’t going away, even if an agreement is reached in December, there’s going to be all kinds of determinations to be made in the coming years. This is going to be an issue that we’re going to be hearing about for some time.


Passport: Let’s hope the reduction in green house gases exceeded the amount released from the planes flying all over the world to do these negotiations. I think we have time for one more question. We have another question here in Newburyport… the question is: what is China doing to reduce their emissions? Are they still building coal-fired power plants? Or are they reducing their emissions?


Lyman: That’s a very good question and the answer is surprising. China said a few years ago that they were very interested in creating a green economy and I think unofficially, delegates sort of roll their eyes back in their heads as China has said that because China’s image for that very activity is, you know, cheap and dirty in regards to their infrastructure. But since then, they’ve really done it and the catalyst was the Olympics in Beijing, with the smog levels and all that. And right now the investment in green technology in China is about one-third of the world’s total. And China’s spending about three times as much on green technology as the United States is. Now, they have a lot further to go because even coal plants and old fossil fuel plants are quite clean compared to the Chinese plants that were built only a few years ago. So it’s going to take a while for China to get to the level of producing power as cleanly as the United States does. And even further to reach the levels of Europe, New Zealand, or Canada, but they are investing large amounts of cash in it and they appear to be very, very serious about doing it. But at the negotiating table, they’re also very serious about not agreeing to take on any targets. And it’s something people here don’t quite understand… why is China spending so much money to try to create this green economy, and yet they don’t want to sign a paper that says that they agree to have the kind of results that they’re more likely to get anyway with these types of investments. So that’s where things stand with China.


Passport: Very good. I should mention there’s an excellent article on Passport by one of our Beijing correspondents on China’s renewable energy initiatives as well. Let me just extend the call for a couple of minutes to give anyone in the audience on the telephone the opportunity to ask a question, since we’ve been kind of dominated today by the Newburyport audience. Is there anyone that would like to ask a question at this time? Don’t forget, you need to press *6 on your phone in order to un-mute yourself.


No questions from the audience? I think everyone’s had their half-hour’s worth of climate change already this morning.


Ok, very good Eric, thank you very much for joining us today, good luck with the rest of your coverage in Bangkok and I’ll look forward to seeing what you can bring back to Passport for us. (Applause)

Lyman: Ok, thanks David.


Passport: I think that’s the first conference call where we’ve had a round of applause.


Lyman: First I’ve heard.


Passport: Ok, thank you very much, enjoy Bangkok, and we’ll talk to you soon.


Lyman: Ok, thanks. Bye everybody.


Passport: Bye bye.