Home The Washington Diplomat December 2008

Optimism, Debate Heat Up Over Obama'sCommitment to Fight Global Warming

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In early November, a global warming panel met at the Newseum in downtown Washington. It was an upbeat, almost giddy, gathering of Washington think tankers, foreign diplomats and policy wonks. Hosted by the French, Danish and Polish embassies, the group used the forum to bandy about phrases like “historic opportunity,” “dawn of a new era,” and “new momentum” to describe America’s potential reengagement in the international fight against global climate change.

Motioning to the U.S. Capitol building behind him, French Ambassador Pierre Vimont said, “We all know a lot of the solutions lie there.”

Six days earlier, President-elect Barack Obama had grabbed their attention, telling thousands gathered in Chicago’s Grant Park and the hundreds of millions watching and listening around the globe that they all live on “a planet in peril” and that there is “new energy to harness.”

The comments — overshadowed by the historic nature of the victory itself — marked a significant departure from the rhetoric of the outgoing president and provided added assurance that Obama was serious about his plan to invest 0 billion in clean energy and to create a cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

“Obama clearly signaled that climate is very much on his mind and that energy, the climate and the economy are all connected,” said Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, a New York-based advocacy organization.

But it remains to be seen if Obama can spin rhetoric into reality, especially with the financial crisis taking over as his first priority, at least for the time being.

Still, the group gathered at “Rising to the Challenge of Climate Change Globally and in the U.S.” clearly hoped that at the very least, the new American president will do something the previous one failed to: seize a leadership role in the global warming debate and reengage the United Nations.

“We cannot rise to this challenge successfully without active engagement of the United States,” said Janusz Zaleski, Polish deputy minister of environment.

Global Warming — How Did We Get Here?

President Bush, in the eyes of the world, botched an opportunity to show global leadership and build international partnerships in 2001 when he walked away from the Kyoto Protocol. Under the treaty, dozens of industrialized nations agreed to an overall reduction in carbon emissions of roughly 5 percent by 2012 compared to 1990 levels.

For Bush, the program was too expensive, threatened American business and wrongly omitted emerging economies such as India and China, whose heavy reliance on coal for power has made them two of the world’s top polluters. In March, at the Washington International Renewable Energy Conference, Bush repeated his stance, saying, “We want a strategy that works, not sounds good.”

For environmentalists and political analysts, the president’s position has provided poor and developing countries with an excuse for not jumping onto the anti-CO2 bandwagon. Their reasoning makes sense: Why sacrifice fossil-fueled economic growth when the United States, historically responsible for the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions, will not?

But in recent years — thanks in part to former Vice President Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” widespread scientific backing that global warming is manmade and fast approaching, as well as the European Union’s aggressive push to reduce greenhouse gases — there has been a general consensus that climate change threatens the planet, particularly poor nations. Over time, scientists argue that global warming will increase sea levels, damage international agriculture, kill animal species, cause unpredictable weather patterns and by extension give birth to national security concerns.

“Current trends in energy supply and consumption are patently unsustainable — environmentally, economically and socially — they can and must be altered,” Nobuo Tanaka, executive director of the International Energy Agency, said at the Nov. 12 launch of the latest World Energy Outlook.

“Rising imports of oil and gas into [Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development] regions and developing Asia, together with the growing concentration of production in a small number of countries, would increase our susceptibility to supply disruptions and sharp price hikes. At the same time, greenhouse gas emissions would be driven up inexorably, putting the world on track for an eventual global temperature increase of up to six degrees Celsius.”

Brice Lalonde, the French special ambassador for climate change, told the recent D.C. forum that “the challenge is very simple.”

“We have to invent a new way of producing, consuming [and] living, without fossil fuels,” Lalonde said.

But that’s easier said than done.

This reality was on display in December 2007 when almost 200 nations met in Bali, Indonesia, to launch negotiations of a road map for a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.

The conference included heated debates over carbon emission targets, incentives to combat deforestation, and concerns about the financing and technology infrastructure needed to help developing nations mitigate greenhouse gas production without crippling their emerging economies. But it provided no real answers.

On the flip side, the resulting Bali Road Map established an agenda for future negotiations and set a 2009 deadline for a new agreement to be hashed out in Copenhagen, Denmark, next December.

Prior to that summit, this month world leaders will converge on Poznan, Poland, to take stock of the progress made in 2008 and decide what must be ironed out before an agreement can be reached next year.

“Hopefully [Poznan] will provide a first draft text of a long-term vision and a very clear program for 2009,” said Thomas Becker, Denmark’s chief climate negotiator and a self-described “climate addict.”

Problems at Poznan?

But Poznan could easily produce more problems than solutions. Regardless of U.S. moves, the European Union has its own issues to deal with, not the least of which is an economic recession that’s threatened the bloc’s aggressive “20-20-20” climate goals. Those plans — which were set to be adopted this month — include slashing greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent, increasing renewable energy 20 percent, and boosting energy efficiency 20 percent — all by 2020 (compared to 1990 levels).

But with the financial mess, the group of 27 nations remains fractured on the ambitious goals — a divide evident just among the three hosts of the Newseum gathering in Washington: Denmark, Poland and France.

On the one hand, Denmark has been a stalwart crusader against global warming as the Nordic nation gears up to host the 2009 summit to hammer out a post-Kyoto agreement. On the other hand there’s Poland, which derives 95 percent of its energy from coal and strongly resists the carbon cutbacks. At the same time it was preparing to host EU leaders in Poznan this month, the country, joined by Italy, also formed a blocking minority of mostly former Iron Curtain nations to protest a binding EU’s climate change agenda.

At a quarterly European Council meeting in Brussels in mid-October, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk declared: “We don’t say to the French that they have to close down their nuclear power industry and build windmills, and nobody can tell us the equivalent.”

France, which holds the European Union presidency, managed to vaguely preserve the 20-20-20 goals at the recent row, but in January it hands off the EU presidency to the Czech Republic, whose president has publicly questioned even the existence of manmade climate change.

Regardless of who’s in charge, the EU will face an uphill battle getting individual countries, especially the poorer members facing tough economic times, to uphold their commitment — let alone getting the new Obama administration to come on board.

Half-Full or Half-Empty?

Indeed, the early optimism surrounding Obama’s commitment to combat global warming could turn out to be premature. For starters, the most powerful players in the battle — the United States and the European Union — both face significant obstacles.

The United States already lags far behind the goals laid out in the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol. Currently, U.S. emissions have been 14 percent above 1990 levels, whereas under Kyoto, they would have had to drop by roughly 5 percent.

Perhaps more importantly, the shaky economy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will likely make it difficult for Obama to commit to a U.N. climate treaty by December 2009. “I think we need some help here to make sure if the U.S. has not finished acting in 2009 that we have not set up expectations in a way that the whole round [of negotiations] collapses,” Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund warned.

In addition to the recent 0 billion bailout plan and talk of another stimulus package, Obama will inherit a national debt approaching trillion and a projected 8 billion deficit. That means any climate proposal involving new money will compete with other priorities and likely face increased scrutiny.

Nevertheless, Obama clearly has a very different set of priorities than his predecessor, so environmentalists remain hopeful that progress on greenhouse gas emissions can be made over the next four years.

And despite the global turbulence, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and other international leaders claim the financial crisis presents an opportunity to kill, or perhaps revive, two birds — the economy and climate — with one stone.

In recent speeches and writings, Ban has urged the international community to solve the problem by going green.

“Scientists agree: To address climate change, we need an energy revolution, a wholesale change in how we power our societies,” he recently said in an op-ed he inked with other U.N. leaders. “Economists agree as well: The hottest growth industry in the world just now is renewable energy. That’s where jobs of the future are already being created, and where much of the technological innovation is taking place that will usher in our next era of economic transformation.”

And the longer the world waits, he warns, the more costly the green transformation will be.

Still, Krupp suggests that the international community should prepare a backup plan in case the new administration feels it has not had enough time to settle into the White House before it is asked to act in Copenhagen.

Krupp points out the president will need 67 votes in the U.S. Senate to pass a treaty and that Obama likely will need more time if he has learned anything from the mistakes of his predecessors, which includes both Bushes and President Bill Clinton.

“The previous administrations began with the international negotiations and viewed the treaty or protocol as the beginning of the conversation with Congress that could in turn drive domestic legislation,” Krupp said. “President-elect Obama will need to hold the conversation with Congress first.”

He stressed: “The old strategy of negotiating the international strategy first and then going to Congress with the enacting legislation just won’t work.”

But Becker, the Danish climate addict, says there is plenty of time for the new administration to act.

“I disagree … Copenhagen is coming too soon,” he said. “I think it is a question of political will. The recent financial crisis and the aid packages that were put together almost overnight shows if the political will is there, you can do it. It’s possible. It’s a question of priorities.”

Q&A with Polish Ambassador Robert Kupiecki on the global climate change conference in Poznan, Poland:

Q: What do you hope will be accomplished at the gathering in Poznan?

A: The December conference in Poznan will hopefully be a milestone on a long road leading to a successful conclusion of climate negotiations. To achieve success in Copenhagen Poznan conference needs to send a strong political signal to the world that countries are determined to work towards the agreement in 2009. Thus, Ministers and climate society in Poznan needs to work out the political guidance to the process before negotiations move into the last year.

The Poznan conference also needs to speed up the negotiations and make this shift into this full negotiations mode (Poznan will be the first time when the draft negotiation text is put on the table to be further developed during the conference as the discussions proceed).

Poznan will be the first time that Ministers will have a debate on shared vision on long term cooperative action. Through the years the international community has developed a strong and clear shared vision of the magnitude of the problem of climate change. Universal shared vision of the solution however remains illusive. One of the key questions is what kind of mechanism is needed to be put in place to ensure financing, technology development and capacity building to curb emissions, spur green growth and to cope with inevitable impacts of climate change.

Poznan also needs to deliver a concrete action for the period up to 2012 to address some serious concerns that developing countries have expressed. The adaptation fund must as soon as possible be made ready to roll out the concrete projects in 2009. Furthermore, Poznan ought to direct towards an agreement on concrete improvements of the Clean Development Mechanism, which should increase its effectiveness and ensure more equal regional distribution and to develop proposal on the global environmental facility for strategic technology program that is aimed at ensuring spending for the dissemination and transfer of technology in short term.

It is worth emphasizing that the Polish government has taken the initiative to organize the exhibition on the technologies for environmental protection. The purpose of this exhibition is to demonstrate that the clean technologies are available and affordable. So far we have received over 160 proposals of projects from six continents. There is also a number of side events taking place on the margins of the Poznan conference. All of them should feed into the mainstream of international climate negotiations.

Q: Did you listen to President-elect Barak Obama’s acceptance speech? If so, where were you and what did you think when he said we live on a “planet in peril” and that there is “new energy to harness”?

A: Yes we did. And as for everyone in Europe and across the world, in Poland these words were long awaited and taken with great enthusiasm. A declaration from the new American president on the greater involvement in international climate dialogue is very much encouraging and should contribute to building momentum in the process of international negotiations as well as raising the expectations towards their outcome. This is what we really need in order to succeed.

We also heard the president-elect address to the Bipartisan States Governors Summit, which took place in LA on 17-18 November, 2008, during which he reaffirmed the importance of the Poznan conference in the global endeavor to arrive at climate solutions.

It is also worth emphasizing that the president-elect signaled his readiness to focus more on the domestic climate legislation process. This is very important factor in identifying the main elements of the US climate strategy, which would define or redefine the US negotiating mandate. We hope that the main architecture for the US domestic climate legislation can be worked out in course of next year so that the new administration is ready to engage fully in concluding the international climate agreement at Copenhagen.

Q: How important is it that the United States plays a leadership role in the climate negotiations? Also, what sort of message would it send to the world if the incoming Obama administration sent representative to the Poznan conference?

A: Let me start with several observations.

First of all, we should not neglect the fact that the US is and will remain for years to come a vast part of the global economy. That translates into great energy consumption and great GHG emissions. And I am not referring here to the great moral historic responsibility, which cast negative light on the process of negotiations. I am talking here about the future.

Secondly, the US is a driving force for political involvement of many other emerging economies. The so called “first movers” problem, experienced right now can be addressed only when the US takes the global leadership in the process. The Us has been a leader in many other issues and is expected to take the lead in this very area.

Thirdly, the US is the heart of the innovation and technology development – core elements of the future climate solutions. We need the US as a leader in changes toward cleaner technologies. The world is looking to the US to lead in the technological innovation in the energy sector. We see it as a key factor determining the success of global efforts in addressing climate change.

Last, but not least, climate change does affect more and more the US national economic and security interests. The US has always been recognized for its readiness to adapt and react quickly and adequately to new challenges. If climate is defined as one of them, it expected that the US will mobilize efforts, both in terms of domestic policies, as well as in terms of international leadership, in order to generate the global and timely response to this challenge.

Having all this in mind one must confirm the huge importance of US leadership role in the climate negotiations. This role has to go in parallel with the responsibility for the whole process and must be tooled with consensus building mechanism. Therefore we need the US active participation in the process in order to ensure that the newly elaborated solutions address adequately expectations, interests and needs of this country as well.

To answer the second part of this question: It is clear right now that we should expect neither president-elect nor his representative participation in Poznan. However, we very much appreciate the support offered already by president-elect to international negotiators. And we hope that he will continue his work in this spirit after January 20 of next year.

Q: What impact is the global financial crisis having on the European Union’s push towards its 20-20-20 goals? Also, what sort of impact is it having on Poland’s push towards those same goals?

A: The financial crisis has called into question basic assumptions of many economic policies around the world, including the EU climate and energy policy, which is currently in the process of elaboration.

I would not expect that in the light of financial crisis, The European Union will give up their ambitious goals. It will rather review the options of redirecting some of the funding into creation of low-carbon, clean-energy economies. The opportunities to explore are numerous, from green cars, green appliances, better insulation, more efficient lightning equipment, better public transport, biofuels, renewables, up to promoting nuclear energy. If there is a way of the government support to such activities, one can not only save a lot in terms of energy and green house emissions, but also spur green development and new life styles.

The question is of course where the money will come from. And this is always a more difficult one. But there are already analyses and examples on the ground that show that climate change itself can become a primary source of solve EU’s and other governments’ fiscal problems. Today it is estimated that by over 30 mln euro can be generated from 2012 in the process of auctioning the emissions rights and the number is supposed to grow as more countries participate in the auctioning scheme.

The financial turmoil will have an impact on our goals but only to the limited extent. As you probably aware Poland is not heavily touched by global financial crisis. Our economy is strong; we predict that our GDP will grow by 4% next year. Thus our position towards 20-20-20 goals remains unchanged.

Q: Some have argued that the financial mess and the threat of climate change provides and opportunity for the world economy to revitalize itself through green industry? Do you agree, why or why not?

A: Let me recall the Chinese proverb, which Thomas Friedman used in his last book on climate change “Hot, Flat and Crowded” that” “when the wind blows in your direction you can either build walls or wind mills”. I believe climate change can be an economic opportunity, once we are able to craft rational and economically feasible strategies, accounting of the climate concerns.

Let me give you Polish example. Poland is a country that would like to build primarily wind mills. This is the only direction if we want to remain a modern economy. And we are going to do that. But one has to take into account that we are a big European economy and that we are an economy based on coal, when it comes to power generation. In order to ensure a wise strategy we have to make sure that the transition to the new environmentally friendly solution offers opportunities in terms of job creation and economic growth. Therefore we are stipulating a more rational and prolonged in time strategies within the EU. But this should not be at any point read as our denial to participate in the European policies. Neither should it be interpreted as pour reluctance to see the opportunities stemming from creation of low carbon societies.

About the Author

Seth McLaughlin is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

Last Edited on July 9, 2014