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The Global and the Local: Blending Actions to Address Climate Change

The Global and the Local: Blending Actions to Address Climate Change

Speech by Eileen Claussen, Executive Director
The Pew Center on Global Climate Change

August 20, 1998

Responding to the challenge of climate change is, as we say at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, serious business. Even talking about it in the current political environment raises sensitive and difficult issues. On the one hand, it is a global problem that demands a global solution. Emissions from Beijing can affect the climate in Boston, just as emissions from Chicago can affect the climate in Calcutta. On the other hand, global solutions cannot be found unless individual nations begin the search for their own solutions. These include working with the business community to make investments in more efficient products, practices and technologies, and taking steps to limit and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Some argue that no single nation should embark on a directed course of action until there is a global framework with worldwide commitment. Others argue that a global response is, in effect, just a series of national responses, and that it is incumbent upon individual nations to begin taking steps to reduce their emissions now. The reality is that we will have to go down both paths simultaneously. We must take steps to control emissions at home at the same time as we design the systems that will be required for all nations to participate effectively in responding to this issue. If we fail to move forward on both paths -- the global and the local -- our response to climate change will almost certainly be a failure.

The International Situation

Let us look first at the international situation. Much has been said and written about what was accomplished, or not accomplished, at Kyoto. The treaty binds developed countries to emissions reductions that would have to be achieved between 2008 and 2012. The targets range from 8 percent below 1990 emission levels (the European Union) to 10 percent above 1990 levels (Iceland). The obligation agreed to by the United States was a reduction of 7 percent below 1990 levels. The parties also agreed to (1) a framework for emissions trading and joint implementation among developed countries; (2) language creating a Clean Development Mechanism, that would allow for joint sustainable development projects between industrialized and developing countries; and (3) a sprinkling of contradictory and incomplete language dealing with carbon sequestration. Binding commitments for developing countries; agreement on a compliance and enforcement regime; and specific definitions or guidelines for the operation of either the trading system or the Clean Development Mechanism were left for future meetings.

But to understand fully the global challenges that we face, we need to focus on the international politics leading up to the Kyoto agreement and how they manifested themselves during Kyoto, and again at the most recent international meeting in Bonn. Politics are also likely to be the drivers of the Conference of the Parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change scheduled in Buenos Aires in November. If history is a guide, it will continue to play a significant role in subsequent negotiating sessions as well.

We should begin with the position of the United States. Beginning in 1996, the United States began designing a broad global framework for addressing the climate change issue. That framework, forwarded internationally in January of 1997, included a binding target for developed countries, emissions trading among developed countries, joint implementation possibilities between developed and developing countries, and three separate provisions related to the increased participation of developing countries. But the United States did not publicly propose a specific binding target until October 1997 (two months before Kyoto), when the President announced the U.S. position in a speech at the National Geographic Society. Because of the delay in defining a target, the U.S. proposal was coolly received, a reception that was exacerbated by both the European focus on ONLY the binding target, and the developing country view that the United States was not taking the issue seriously but was simply interested in limiting the energy use and development of other countries.

These views were reinforced by the Kyoto Conference itself. Most of the time in Kyoto was spent in prolonged and intense debate between the European Union, the United States and Japan. The subject? The magnitude of the binding reduction. Of course, it was obvious to all participants that the magnitude of the reduction would be directly related to agreement on trading and joint implementation. And that was, in fact, how the agreement was reached. The United States agreed to reductions that were greater than originally proposed by the President, and, in return, the language on what have been called the "flexibility mechanisms" was also included. Make no mistake as you think about how this bargain was struck: negotiations were held not only between Heads of Delegation in Kyoto, but also between Heads of State from their capitols. In fact, the discussions were so intense, that further development of language on the flexibility mechanisms could not be concluded by the time the Conference ended.

What about the role of the developing countries? A key part of the U.S. position was that developing countries be more active partners in reducing emissions. The provisions of the U.S. text related to developing countries were central to U.S. diplomatic efforts leading up to Kyoto. But, with the exception of Brazil, which turned the joint implementation concept into the Clean Development Mechanism, there was almost no exploration of ideas and language with key developing country greenhouse gas emitters like China and India. The result was that those countries, who were skeptical of U.S. intentions at the beginning of the Conference, and who had no interest in accepting obligations until it was clear that industrialized countries, particularly the United States, both show commitment to a reduction scheme and actually make significant emission reductions, became more adamantly opposed to increased involvement in the Kyoto Protocol. The public debates at Kyoto on the subject of developing country participation were therefore largely symbolic. And spokespersons for a number of developing countries even attempted to scuttle the emissions trading language at the end of the Conference, calling it immoral and unfair.

The reality is that the views of the developing world do not appear to have shifted since the Kyoto Conference. Yes, there are several countries, particularly in Latin America, that continue to be positive about both their future role and also about the need for global solutions to the climate change issue. And South Korea has indicated to Japan that is willing to voluntarily reduce its emissions beginning in 2018. But the vast majority have adopted a wait and see attitude with respect to their own obligations -- or perhaps we should phrase it "a wait and see if the developed countries begin taking steps to meet the obligations they agreed to in Kyoto." This posture is likely to dominate any discussions on particular commitments from the developing world, and is also likely to influence the negotiations on the Clean Development Mechanism, where key developing countries are interested in some degree of control over the projects that are accepted so that they can be assured that they are truly development projects, not just projects that can be used for credit by the developed world. Emissions trading and carbon sequestration, of course, still remain suspect, and it will take substantial discussion and negotiation to reach agreement on how to operationalize the Kyoto language.

At the core of the developing country view is the notion of fairness. Is it fair, many of them ask, for the developing countries to be asked to take on serious obligations while their total and per capita emissions are low compared to the developed world? Is it fair, some ask, for the developing countries with far lower GDP and per capita GDP to be asked to take on obligations to deal with a global problem caused thus far by the emissions from the developed world? Is it fair, others ask, for the United States, with the highest levels of both GDP AND emissions, to insist on developing country participation when the United States itself seems unwilling to make substantial emission reductions? Until these fundamental issues of fairness are addressed internationally, it is unlikely that we will see significant movement on the part of the developing countries.

The Domestic Situation

Unfortuantely, the complications here at home are equally daunting. While there is concern, interest and a willingness to act on the part of the general public, some in the business community, and some in government at the Federal, State and local levels, the issue is now enmeshed in difficult partisan politics. And while climate change itself remains controversial, it is Kyoto that has raised the tension levels dramatically. In fact, looking back at the last two years, it is clear that those in industry most opposed to dealing with the climate change issue (in other words, those who view themselves as losers under a climate change response regime) have thoroughly worked the political system to (1) cast doubt on the science; and (2) emphasize the possible negative economic impacts of the Kyoto Protocol, basing their analysis on unrealistic assumptions and unworkable policies. At the same time, many in the environmental community have unrealistically (1) advocated large reductions in more immediate time frames; and (2) concentrated on the availability of technologies that, they believe, could effect compliance with the Kyoto regime at virtually no cost. This clash of the polar positions between some of the industry and some of the environmental community has dominated the debate, catalyzing political grandstanding, and essentially removing the issue from the reasonable and pragmatic consensus-building center that we need if we are to move forward and successfully respond to climate change.

What has this meant for real emission reductions on the part of the United States? We need to begin with a look at our historic climate change obligations and how we have responded to them. First, the United States is a party to the Framework Convention on Climate Change, and, therefore, is obligated to take policies and measures to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. It is also obligated to aim toward reducing emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000. To meet these commitments, the United States has partnered with industry on a series of voluntary programs. Many of these programs were initiated during the Bush Administration, and were expanded upon by the Clinton Administration. These efforts, while significant, are not likely to result in the United States meeting 1990 levels by 2000. Indeed, the United States acknowledged in the 1998 Annual Energy Outlook that we would likely be 17 percent above 1990 levels by the year 2000.

Since Kyoto, most of the voluntary programs have continued, but they have neither been expanded nor intensified. Before the Kyoto Conference, the President outlined a program that the Administration would seek to implement post-Kyoto. This program included a $6.3 billion tax and budget package proposed in January of this year, that now appears dead on Capitol Hill; a modest effort that has as yet yielded no results to insure that electricity restructuring does not increase carbon dioxide emissions; and a somewhat more significant effort to consult with industry to develop voluntary early reduction objectives. This latter effort now also appears unlikely to come to fruition, in part because of the difficult political atmosphere, and in part because no one has come to grips with the complex but essential issue of how companies that make serious reductions will have those reductions credited toward future obligations.

Moving Forward

If we start with the premise that climate change is a serious issue that we must take seriously (and that is certainly the starting point for the Pew Center and the businesses that form its Environmental Leadership Council), we have an enormous task before us. Not only do we have to sort through the domestic and international politics that surround climate change, but we must also move forward to develop the technologies that will be necessary in the 21st century, see that those new technologies make their way through the global economy, and develop the governmental and non governmental systems that will provide the right combination of incentives to make these changes a reality. Obviously, this is no easy task.

Perhaps what we need is a modest beginning. First, we must do our best to de-politicize this issue in Washington, and work to agree on the basic agenda that will be necessary to achieve real results. There is no reason why we cannot work through a program to credit the voluntary early emission reductions of companies that want to get started now. Such an effort would be climate friendly and friendly to those forward looking companies that are committed to dealing positively with the climate change issue. It would be a way to energize U.S. industry, achieve and show progress, and reward those who make real contributions.

Second, there is no reason why we cannot sit down and design an incentive package so that individuals and individual companies begin to make investments that will result in reduced greenhouse gas emissions now and in the future. This is an issue that will be with us for a long time; the Kyoto targets alone will not allow us to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations at less than dangerous levels. And what will count for the future is the technology that we develop over the coming decades. Quite simply, the earlier and faster we move, the greater our chances of being globally competitive with new, climate friendly technologies.

Third, there is no reason why we cannot sit down with the Federal government, State governments and local governments to begin assessing the roles for each in moving the United States to a lower emissions future. This is a problem of enormous scope, and it will take a concerted effort on the part of everyone to design a framework that is environmentally and economically responsive. We need to work together, in partnership, to achieve our objectives.

Fourth, there is no reason why we cannot begin to analyze and discuss how to design a domestic program that will achieve emission reductions over the longer term. We know there are policies and programs that can lower the costs; we know there are likely to be sectors of the economy that will be more impacted than others; and we know that there will be effects on American workers. Surely we can begin to have discussions about how to achieve our environmental goals in ways that minimize the costs and impacts, and treat those who will be affected in ways that are fair and equitable.

And fifth, there is no reason why we cannot agree on how to address this issue internationally, so that our expectations are grounded in reality, and our strategies are based not only on what is cost-effective, but also on what is fair. If we take steps at home, our ability to ask other nations to take steps will be more credible. If we are sensitive to the legitimate concerns of others, we are more likely to be able to lead in the design of an acceptable international system.

It may be hard, in August of 1998, to imagine a day when all sectors of society -- the public, the private and the nongovernmental -- are engaged in working on meaningful responses to the climate change issue. But I am not sure I could have imagined 6 months ago that the 17 corporate leaders represented in the Pew Center's Business Environment Leadership Council would step forward on this issue and agree to voluntarily begin responding to the challenges presented by global climate change. And I certainly didn't know 6 months ago of the efforts of so many of the States to inventory their emissions and develop action plans to reduce emissions. Maybe we can move beyond the rhetoric, take this issue seriously, and work together to develop solutions. Maybe we can face and address global climate change while sustaining a growing economy.

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