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Important Week for Global Warming – Some Rays of Hope for Global Efforts

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Ray of Hope for Climate ActionToday begins a week dubbed “climate week” because of all the high-level climate discussions that are occurring.  And they just all happen to be occurring in the US at an important time for the US domestic debate to pass a clean energy and climate bill in the US Senate.

The high-level events begin on Tuesday (Sept. 22) with the UN Secretary General hosting an all day session on global warming for Heads of Government from around the world, it continues with a session on deforestation for Heads of Government on Wednesday (Sept. 23), and ends with the G20 Summit in Pittsburg — with a lot in between.

Heads of Government from these key countries don’t meet often to discuss global warming pollution, so every event where this is on the agenda for Heads of Government is an important opportunity to make progress.  And as I’ve discussed, bringing in Heads of Government is critical at this stage of the negotiations if we are to have any chance of securing a strong global agreement in Copenhagen.  Last time Heads of Government from key countries met at the G8 and Major Economies Forum in Italy, some progress was made on a number of important benchmarks of the global effort (as I previously discussed).  So there is hope of more to come at these key events.

Time is short before Copenhagen — about 3 months to the day are left — so there is a notable sense that things aren’t coming together fast enough — dark clouds appear to be hanging overhead.  Accordingly expectations were high that these high-level events could provide a much needed boost to international efforts — start to part the clouds and let some sunshine appear.

What gives me a sense of optimism — besides the fact that regardless of the fluctuations in the political climate the need for clean energy and global warming solutions will remain – are four things about international efforts on global warming that are important to keep in mind.

25th hour (and maybe 26th) is when these negotiations often come together. This is a high stakes negotiation where everything is intimately woven together.  Countries are unwilling move on one piece as they are waiting for a similar move by another country on a related issue.  This is especially true on one of the key pieces on the agenda for the G20 — finance/investment for developing countries (see my summary of the negotiation texts for an overview of the key issues – part 1, part 2, and part 3).  At the Major Economies Forum in July, President Obama tasked Finance Ministers to report back at the G20 on progress on this issue so there is hope that some promising signs will emerge from Pittsburgh (and the Obama Administration has shown some more public support in recent days as I discussed here).

As a result, the negotiations often “come down to the wire” as no one is willing to move until they feel like they have moved the other side as much as possible — the final showdown.  We don’t have to look too far back into these negotiations to see an example.  The Bali meeting which launched the two year negotiations towards Copenhagen wasn’t resolved until Saturday afternoon the day after the meeting was supposed to end.  And I bet if you asked negotiators — either before Bali began or at any point during the session — whether we would get an agreement that looked like the actual outcome they would have said no (including yours truly).

Many times these negotiations only look like agreement can be reached minutes after it is actually reached.

The US is making progress domestically to curb global warming pollution. The last time the world was on the cusp of an international agreement to address global warming — in 1997 around the Kyoto Protocol negotiations — domestic efforts to put in place limits on US global warming pollution had made very little progress.  In fact, some would argue that the US was on its heels before Kyoto as the Senate had sent a signal with “mixed” domestic support for what would ultimately emerge.

While things haven’t changed as far as we need them to in the US, let’s not forget about a couple of important changes that have occurred that make the US poised for action more than at any time in the past, including the:

  • Supreme Court has ruled that CO2 is a pollutant and the US Environmental Protection Agency has taken steps to control CO2 as required by US law pursuant to this decision (as my colleague David Doniger discussed here and here);
  • US stimulus made a down payment on the necessary investment in clean energy and global warming solutions (as we discussed here); and
  • House of Representatives passed clean energy and global warming legislation that would require US emissions to decline annually through 2050.

No one wants a repeat of Kyoto where the US couldn’t build the domestic support to implement what it committed to internationally. That is why we (and many others) are pushing for the US Senate to take action before Copenhagen — we need to ensure that the US actually lives up to its promises.

Developing countries are taking action to curb emissions and providing hints of more to come. Over the last 2 years, there has been a sizeable shift in how developing countries came to the international negotiations.  Major developing countries used to say: “we only act when the industrialized world takes even deeper action”.  But now most major emerging economies have taken action to curb their emissions and proposed or hinted at more to come.  For example:

Almost all developed countries have proposed deeper emissions cuts. The European Union, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, and Japan have all committed to deeper emissions reduction targets (with a signal from the new Japanese government that they’ll go even deeper than their predecessor).  Two notable exceptions that haven’t committed to deeper cuts are Russia (see here for their weak opening offer) and Canada (as noted in this call for greater action from Canada).  And while a number of these countries have to firm up their targets and their domestic laws to achieve those targets, these countries have committed in advance of Copenhagen (very different than prior to Kyoto where most hadn’t proposed anything or taken steps to implement domestic actions).

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It is easy to feel like the world’s efforts to address global warming are under a dark cloud characterized by not enough progress and big unknowns in key countries, but some rays of sunshine are appearing in key countries.

And it is these rays that will have to be pieced together at the 25th hour in Copenhagen.

So will the forecast coming out of climate week improve the outlook for Copenhagen?  Let’s hope as a lot is riding on the world’s efforts to solve global warming (I’ll be in NY and Pittsburgh to see first hand how it’s looking).
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Jake Schmidt is the International Policy Director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, read his blog at NRDC’s Switchboard

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