Contradictions in Climate Change Negotiations: Tianjin to Cancun

Contradiction in Climate Talks - the latest from Jake SchmidtThe last round of international global warming negotiations before countries meet in Cancun, is wrapping up.  The meeting in Cancun needs to begin the process of implementing key elements of the international response to global warming.  Cancun isn’t expected to agree to a “new treaty”, establish a new “binding agreement”, or finalize all aspects of international action on this critical issue.  Instead, it must re-establish confidence by progressively building the agreement component by component and rebuilding some trust lost after Copenhagen (as I’ve discussed here).  So as this week of negotiations is wrapping up one word seems to describe the state of play — CONTRADICTIONS (a point I briefly mentioned midweek).

In Tianjin countries debated what action they would commit to take, while at home they were moving forward with concrete actions to reduce their emissions, deploy assistance for developing countries, and become more transparent about detailing their actions. In the halls in Tianjin you would get the impression that nothing is happening, but all you have to do is step out of the facility and you can see first-hand that things are happening.  For example, China is in the final days of its efforts to reduce its energy intensity, is under serious discussions about how to incorporate its new greenhouse gas intensity target into its 12th Five-Year Plan, and is discussing the need for transparency.  We also are seeing India move forward with its actions at home and the US continuing to implement its existing tools.

Clean energy deployment is happening all around us, but negotiators seem not to notice the economic, environmental, and leadership opportunities that this reality will produce. It is almost like we are stuck in the 19th century discussing the transition from horses to cars, instead of talking about the 21st century opportunity to deploy energy efficiency and renewable energy.  There is a $13 trillion dollar market for clean energy that will emerge over the next two decades as countries move to address climate change.  And this market isn’t just on a piece of paper, but is being developed as we speak.  For example, we saw near Tianjin a Chinese project to deploy carbon capture and storage technology on a coal-fired power plant.  I just came back from a visit to see the CODA and Lishen Power Battery plant which produces advanced batteries for transportation and utility applications including renewable energy storage (I’ll blog on that later).

Climate change is happening as we speak, but given the pace of negotiations you would think that we have all the time we need to get the agreement just right before finalizing anything. All you have to do is read the paper or watch the news and you’ll see the future if we don’t address this challenge (as we outlined in this video).  While it is important that we get the right signals from this international negotiation, we can’t “fiddle while Rome burns”.

Actions speak louder than words. Focus of this week’s negotiations was on trying to narrow down the differences in the negotiating text so countries could focus in Cancun on resolving a limited number of “crunch issues”.  While there was a lot of talk of progress on some issues here in Tianjin (and there was good incremental progress on some issues), some countries were creating conditions which didn’t allow as much progress as we needed in Tianjin.  All of this can change before Cancun as the Ministers will be confronted with the reality that they will get egg on their face if they come to Cancun and the same dynamics play out.  No one wants to be blamed for a failure in Cancun.

Ministers have the power to direct their negotiators to change the dynamics, stop throwing up roadblocks, and start finding ways to solve problems.  They need to stop just saying no, but instead say: “I can get to yes if we do this and this”.

It is time to resolve the contradictions and instead create solutions in Cancun. All countries need to come to Cancun with a spirit of action.  They need to view everything that they say and agree in Cancun through two lenses: (1) does it create real action on the ground in the near-term and (2) what variation of a proposal can they accept.  No and we don’t want to agree in Cancun can’t be the response in Cancun.

Time is short before Cancun for countries to resolve some key issues.  Negotiators need to start acting as if they really want a “balanced package” and a “positive outcome” agreed in Cancun.  I know they can as I’ve seen them come together before, but they sure aren’t acting right now as if they really want forward progress in Cancun.  They need to start walking the talk.

Jake Schmidt is the International Climate Policy Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council where he helps to develop the post-2012 international response to climate change (for more information see his blog or follow him on twitter). And help track countries actions to reduce their global warming pollution.

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