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COP15 Climate Talks – Penultimate Score Report & What Must Be Done

I thought I’d offer a penultimate progress report on the other great ongoing US-Obama policy debacle: the Copenhagen COP15 climate talks.

Obama, and Chinese Premier Wen, parachuted in at the last minute. Promptly, upon arrival, they immediately disappointed the rest of the world by failing to offer, between the two of them, a single substantive new proposal. The world had wishful expectations that these two giants of superpowerdom would propose something – anything – substantive to help clinch the deal. But alas, no, it was all weasel words, spin and throwing rivals under the bus.

Here’s where things stand, depending on your perspective:

The Rogue States

There are two rogue states in this game – the US and China. The US refused to participate in Kyoto and now claims the right to special treatment because of our previous recalcitrance. China somehow managed to negotiate a free pass for itself at Kyoto – possibly because it actually was a much poorer country back then – and now is insisting on special treatment because of their previous good luck. Nobody buys either of these arguments. Well, nobody that is, other than MSM and the two countries’ respective leaders.

Rogue State #1: America
America is the world’s second largest carbon emitter, having just been edged out by Rogue State #2, China. America’s per capita carbon intensity is a simply unbelievable 19 metric tons per person per year. It’s carbon intensity per GDP unit is roughly 0.4 metric tons of CO2 per $1,000 in GDP, which, while good by developing country standards, is unacceptable for the world’s most technologically advanced industrial economy.

Basically, the US has offered nothing new of substance. The essence of our up-to-the-minute negotiating stance is that we’re proposing to bully other countries into offering blood money to the developing world to compensate them for their suffering from our excesses, without actually reducing those excesses in any material way. Oh, and we’re offering to have our investment banks underwrite billions in financial derivatives.

The Blood Money Fund
The US tried to move things along yesterday by signing up to participate in a $100 billion per year fund to help poor countries deal with the consequences of our rogue actions. You know, a little blood money to help them help themselves to not drown or starve or burn, or at least to drown or starve or burn a little less painfully.

But Obama undercut the announcement by refusing to say how much the US would contribute to this blood money fund. The US press seems to think that the fund was Obama’s idea, but it really isn’t. The UK and the African Union came up with it, and the US tried repeatedly to undercut the idea before finally, tepidly endorsing it. I guess it’s not market-driven enough for us, or something.

Anyway, because Hillary Clinton is very good at what she does, we actually managed to spin our our substance-free agreement with the fund into a PR coup.

The Status Quo Emissions Proposal
Meanwhile, on the more substantive issue of America’s own carbon emission reduction commitments, we have offered nothing more than we had going in to the conference, which was basically nothing at all: a 3% reduction in emissions off the conference’s baseline 1990 year.

And we’re not even saying that we’re going to make those cuts. We’re reserving the right to do roughly half of them by trading derivatives called carbon credits – allowing US companies to "offset" their carbon use by buying credits from people who probably wouldn’t use their extra capacity anyway. And we get to count these "offsets" – basically, virtual emissions that kind of work like a fantasy football team – as part of our 3% in real reductions. Horrifically, this actually means that many American companies will get to emit MORE than they are right now, in real terms. Goldman, Sachs will be happy to play the middlemen, underwriting these credits and awarding their own executives billions in bonuses for this invaluable service.

The US refuses to commit to cuts on the basis of either GDP or population intensity baselines, since doing so would presumably require us to do something other than enrich investment bankers. Heck. Maybe we’d actually be required to get our own people to change our ridiculous lifestyles.

The Monitoring Stalking Horse
The US also made a really big deal about monitoring other countries’ emissions cuts, even though many experts are saying that the derivatives-based nature of the US proposal will make our own cuts, such as they are, un-monitorable. In the world press, we’ve successfully shifted the blame for recalcitrance on verification to other countries like China without having to answer questions about our own procedures. I suppose this is a victory of sorts.

Rogue State #2 – China
China is the world’s largest carbon emitter. It’s per capita carbon intensity is roughly 4.5 metric tons of CO2 per person a year – roughly 1/4th the US level and respectable for the middle income country that it is. This figure puts the lie to China’s claims that it should still be treated as a poor country. It’s carbon intensity per GDP unit is roughly 0.7 metric tons of CO2 per $1,000 in GDP (PPP), which is rather inefficient. This number is dropping rapidly along with its high rates of GDP growth.

China had a reasonably meaty proposal going into the conference, but it fell short of expectations and, like the US, they’ve done nothing during the conference to built on it. The essence of China’s argument is that they were a poor country when Kyoto was negotiated so they got a free pass. Even though they’re now a respectably middle income country, they’re still going to insist on the same treatment they got at Kyoto, on principle. China also tries to act as a spokesperson for poor countries (namely their African allies and India), as well as for the small group of middle income countries in the same boat as they are in (namely, Brazil, Russia and maybe Indonesia).

A Really Bad Poker Player – the Core Proposal
China laid out a respectable proposal before the conference began: 40-45% reduction in energy intensity. This would mean that they’re targeting something around 0.25 to 0.30 metric tons per $1,000 of GDP by 2020, given the rate at which their GDP is growing. Their proposal would basically put them into the same ballpark as Europe is in today. On a population basis, this would imply that China would increase its per capita carbon intensity to roughly 6 metric tons per person per year, or roughly the same level Europe is aiming for by 2020. This proposal seems designed to give China the incentive it needs to develop into a European-like country in terms of lifestyles and emissions controls.

I believe that the Europeans were hoping that China would, at the conference, agree to bring both their GDP intensity targeting and their population intensity targeting into line with where Europe plans to be by 2020, as opposed to the hybrid of then-and-now that they’re volunteering. But China surprised everybody by failing to improve upon their initial offer. As it is, China’s proposal undershoots on GDP intensity by a fair margin. They should have offered 50% or even 55%. Then they’d be completely in line with Europe and everybody would stop complaining. As it is, they appear to be simply factoring in energy efficiency gains and renewable energy investments that they probably would’ve had/done anyway, so that their proposal, while better than the US do-nothing approach, is really, prospectively, status quo for China. The fact that they’re running out of high quality coal reserves may actually be the single biggest reason why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Just to dismiss a bit of stupidity: the US right has been critical of this offer for the ridiculous reason that China would be able to emit more in total and per capita than they do today under it. This is a self-serving position – that would mean that China would just have to stop developing and getting wealthier immediately (which is probably what the US right would want them to do). In any event, GDP and population intensity targeting is the only correct way to do this, whatever US corporations and Republicans say.

The Chinese proposal differs notably from the US one in that it does not appear to allow for "offsets" as a means for China to achieve its commitments. GDP intensity targeting means exactly what it says: real improvements in the efficiency of energy use.

Sequestration in New Forests
China’s equivalent to the US derivatives is to offer to plant a vast amount of trees – effectively creating new forests to sequester a large amount of their carbon emissions. This is nice and better than derivatives, and maybe even a little helpful, but I think they were planning on doing this anyway, so it’s really not much of a new offer. It also serves the dual purpose of stopping advancing desertification, so they would’ve had to do it in any event.

Notably (and positively), they are not proposing to offset this against their reductions, although we should watch to make sure they don’t try to pull a fast one.

China made their sequestration offer before the conference and they have not improved upon it.

African/Indian Advocacy and the Blood Money Fund
China spent a lot of time at the conference pushing the African Union’s agenda and in working closely with India, despite the fact that their interests were not always aligned. In particular, China pushed hard for the fund and for Africa to get a bigger share of it (Africa is seeking $67 billion a year, out of a total of the proposed $100 billion a year). China also pushed for India’s right to stay out of Kyoto, while insisting, at the same time, that the developed countries should remain bound by their Kyoto undertakings. These positions caused a great deal of friction between China and the developed countries.

It really is unclear why China took the stance that they did on behalf of the G-77. They clarified that they themselves would not qualify for access to the fund, so this can’t be self-interest. And they must also have realized that there was no way they would be able to avoid turning their own offer into binding cuts, even if they succeeded in making sure that the Africans and Indians continued to be exempt.

Most likely, they had other foreign policy objectives in mind, which have nothing to do with COP15 – such as making nice with their African allies and creating the basis for detente with India. On this point, they just may actually have succeeded in setting up talks with Manmohan Singh’s Indian government over those pesky pieces of Tibetan real estate they’ve been quarreling over for decades. I guess that’s one takeaway from this conference: the Dalai Lama is, as usual, just a little bit more scr*wed than he was before.

The Monitoring Bugbear
China is saying that, on principle, since they weren’t part of the Kyoto verification mechanism, they shouldn’t be required to be subjected to international monitoring on the performance of their commitments now. They seem to have dug themselves into a PR hole on this issue, despite blatant US hypocrisy on the same point. In my opinion, they should give it up, but they’re not budging on it enough.

They lost this round because Hillary Clinton is a lot better at what she does than the negotiator they sent. They should’ve sent the A team – maybe somebody like the charismatic retired deputy PM Wu. China really had nothing new to say at the conference, but at least she would’ve said it a lot better, and they might actually have won the PR war. As it is, we (the other country with nothing to say) are just walking all over them.

Population Control & Family Planning
The most ridiculous part of China’s position is their insistence that population control be added as a key plank of COP15. Basically, they want the US and poor countries to reproduce less.

The moment fundies around the world think that you’re trying to make climate change about killing babies, you shut down all possibility of dialogue. I know the Chinese feel strongly about this issue, but they really need to learn to keep their opinions to themselves. Instead, they had their incompetent negotiator get into repeated screaming matches with other world leaders on this point, over and over again, and added family planning literature to every briefing packet they distributed at the conference, even dedicated a third of their official website on the conference to family planning. This is a no-win strategy for China. Nobody wants to be educated on why family planning is important at a conference on carbon emissions.


Not much to say here. The European Union has a GDP carbon intensity of roughly 0.27 metric tons of CO2 per $1,000 of GDP (PPP), and a per capita carbon intensity of roughly 8 metric tons of CO2 per person per year. Their proposal appears to have the consequence of lowering GDP intensity to around 0.2 metric tons and per capita carbon intensity to around 6 metric tons by 2020, which means they will look marginally better than China on GDP intensity and about the same in terms of per capita intensity. The US will still be in another ballpark of decadent corruption – we’re not even playing the same sport.

Their main concerns seem to be twofold – (1) that the US and China aren’t doing enough in terms of their actual announced commitments and (2) that they don’t have to pay too much into the Blood Money fund. They are also trying to wiggle out of specific Kyoto undertakings that they don’t like, wherever and whenever they can.

Europe also believes in a third target – one the US and China do not really take seriously – that the absolute increase in temperature should be limited to 2 degrees celsius.

The Poor Countries

The rest of the world is angry at the US and Europe, and they should be angry at China but they aren’t for some silly reason. Their main concern, aside from India and a few others, is getting financial assistance for programs that’ll prevent their people from drowning, starving or burning. For some inexplicable reason, they’re quite insistent on not being left to drown, starve or burn. Unfortunately, for them, US policy begs to disagree.

The developing world has an average per capita carbon intensity of around only 1.6 tons of CO2 per person per year. GDP intensity is all over the map, depending on their industrial structures, and probably not too relevant for this group.

The rest of the world, again, other than India, seems to want the absolute increase in temperature limited to 1.5 degrees celsius, since apparently more than a handful of countries will join Atlantis under the waves, with anything more. Unreasonably, they were unimpressed with Waterworld and they are insisting that the developed countries make sure they continue to have solid land under their feet. Again, US policy begs to disagree.

They don’t think they should have to make cuts, set emissions reduction targets, or open up their countries to foreign monitoring. For some reason, they think that this whole thing is our fault. They want the Europeans to stick to their Kyoto undertakings, and they want the US and China to sign up.

What needs to happen

1. The US needs to STFU about verification. Nobody cares. Really. This point is all about power and nothing to do with reality. I think the Europeans recognize that whether China or Indonesia submits to special standards of verification for their cuts is irrelevant when the US is only peddling derivatives instead of proposing cuts in the first place. In any event, I have a feeling that remote sensing will be the primary means of verification in the long term anyway, and we clearly have the best spacecraft to do this.

2. The US needs to somehow improve its real reduction offer. The rest of the world doesn’t care about the percentage of absolute reduction in emissions, and they know very well that the US is in another ballpark in terms of carbon footprint. The US needs to give more of a subjective and qualitative roadmap for what we plan to do about this ridiculous discrepancy. However, this would require leadership from President Obama, and we know how hesitant he is about providing any.

3. China needs to STFU about both verification and about Kyoto (really the same issue for them) – it got out-gamed here, whatever the fairness of the issue, and it needs to recognize the fact and deal with it. It should just grin and bear it, and submit whatever reports Obama wants them to. Whether it likes it or not, it’s not a poor country anymore, by any conceivable measure (whether GDP per capita, human development indicators, or carbon emissions), and it can’t keep on claiming exemption from the Kyoto protocols on the basis that it still is what it is not.

4. China really needs to STFU about population increases and family planning. Nobody else wants to talk about this issue, and they really just end up sounding like a cross schoolmaster lecturing to an empty classroom of recalcitrant fundies. If they really want to make a difference, they should, outside of the conference framework, agree to (generously) fund African, South Asian and South American family planning initiatives.

5. Europe needs to stop trying to wiggle out of its Kyoto undertakings. They dug their grave here and they need to lie in it. To do otherwise, just gets the backs of the developing world up and scuttles any chance for a deal.

6. The rest of world needs to calm down about their insistence on generational equity. The US, China, and Europe don’t believe in equity. They believe in power coming from the barrel of a gun, and, I hate to say this, unless the G-77 recognizes this and adjusts their negotiating tactics accordingly, they’ll end up with even less than the next-to-nothing they’re on track to get now. Instead, they need to focus on the pragmatic issues about how they can get from the Big Bad Three enough in the way of concessions and financial and technical assistance to save as many of their lives as possible. This is not fair, but the world isn’t fair.

And if China won’t step up to 3 and 4 (and every indication is that they won’t unless they see us do so first), it will all fall on Mr. Obama’s shoulders to do the right thing on 1 and 2, and hope to goodness that Congress doesn’t shoot him down. Right now, there is not much cause for optimism on either point. The President isn’t leading, and Congress isn’t sending any cooperative signals.

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