Backpedaling, frustration, and, finally, hope in international climate relations The Kyoto Protocol is set to expire in 2012. A global contingent of delegates to the United Nations' Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) met in Bali last December to start a dialogue on how to replace the woefully..
Backpedaling, frustration, and, finally, hope in international climate relations
The Kyoto Protocol is set to expire in 2012. A global contingent of delegates to the United Nations' Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) met in Bali last December to start a dialogue on how to replace the woefully ineffective treaty. Next December, they'll convene again in Copenhagen to hash out the final details and hopefully get all of the U.N. members to sign on.So, what exactly is going on this month in Poland? An important checkpoint between Bali and Copenhagen, more than 10,000 representatives from 192 countries are meeting in earnest in the town of Pozna? to start the negotiation stage of treaty-building.Entering the two weeks of meetings, however, expectations for any real progress were low. Dozens of my friends and colleagues are there right now, and word is that those expectations are being met. Still, certain key issues are emerging, they report. The overall mood, they say: a conflicted sense of optimism for the year ahead (a very unfamiliar feeling to those of us in the climate field) in the face of immense frustration with current conditions (a feeling we know well).On the frustration end, a rather serious tension is emerging along the old "North-South"-or developing/developed-rift: Poorer nations, from China and India to Bali and Belize, are insisting that rich countries-which amassed their wealth through carbon-intensive industrialization-lead by example with ambitious targets for greenhouse gas reductions. They also want developed nations to provide them with capital to transition to a low-carbon economy.Unfortunately, the voices of developing countries are not being heard. "Here's the worst part," Jon Warnow of 350.org, which campaigns for a target atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration of 350 parts per million, emailed me from Pozna?, "the countries facing the biggest impacts of climate change are also the countries most poorly represented here in the United Nations."The U.S., Canada, Australia, and Russia have long balked at the notion of taking on heightened responsibility. They're not changing their tune this year. "Developing countries have expressed their frustration regarding the still low ambitions of the industrialized countries," said Yvo de Boer, the UNFCCC ‘s executive secretary.According to last year's seminal report by the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), industrialized countries need to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25 percent by 2020-though 40 percent is a more ideal goal. Meanwhile, the European Union-traditionally the most open to ambitious targets-is watching its own plan to cut CO2 emissions just 20 percent by 2020 dissolve. (A handful of members are bailing out on the commitment as the Pozna? talks proceed.) "If the E.U. fails to adopt [this] ambitious package," a non-E.U. negotiator from Europe told Grist, "then its credibility-when it asks for commitments from others-will be weakened."The E.U.'s shortcomings arrive in the face of bold moves by others. "Last week 49 of the world's most vulnerable countries endorsed the 350 target that the latest science calls for," 350.org's Warnow wrote. "Instead of recognizing the importance of this call, some EU leaders have been backpedaling on their already weak climate commitments."Elsewhere in Pozna?, youth activists and delegates from poorer nations are up in arms about a decision regarding Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD). Under its final wording, the program does not protect the rights of indigenous groups, native populations, and local communities that would be affected by its market-driven projects. "Today's outrageous striking of all rights language in REDD is further proof that the policies being debated at Poznan are less about saving people and the planet, and more about making more profit for major corporations," wrote Brianna Cayo-Cotter of the Energy Action Coalition.So what's to be optimistic about? The two-word answer: Barack Obama. As the President-Elect made clear in a video message to all U.N. delegates before the meetings, the U.S. "is back" and will be an aggressive and cooperative force for the environment going forward.America's imminent turnaround is echoed by a number of other pleas from back across the pond. A coalition of 18 environmental, business, and faith-based organizations sent a letter to all delegates emphasizing that the "American public is committed to action on climate change and clean energy like never before. … [We] will all be devoting our efforts and resources over the next year to help President-elect Obama resurrect America's lost leadership on global warming." California Governor Schwarzenegger also sent along a video promising his presence in Copenhagen. "There are some people who say that we can't afford the fight against global warming while our economies are down, but the exact opposite is true," he said in his message, which I'm told, along with Obama's, is resonating among those gathered.So while the wheels may be spinning without traction at the in Pozna? talks--which officially end tomorrow--there's confidence enough that come January 20th, the international climate negotiations might finally get it in gear. Then, it's onward to Copenhagen.(Photos: Opening ceremonies from Flickr user oxfam international; 350.org protest courtesy 350.org.)