Post-Durban and Pre-Election: The Climate Outlook

Remarks of Elliot Diringer, Executive Vice President of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions
Deputy Minister's Speaker Series-Environment Canada
Ottawa, Canada
April 19, 2012

Watch a video of Mr. Diringer's remarks

I’ve been asked to talk today about the international picture – about where the U.N. climate negotiations might be headed after Durban. And I promise I will eventually work my way toward that topic.

But I’d like to start with some reflections on a few recent events in Washington–events that I think in many ways sum up where we stand in our struggle with climate change.   

This past weekend, some of you might know, Washington celebrated its annual Cherry Blossom Festival. This was a special year – the festival’s 100th anniversary. Tens of thousands of people from around the world joined in the festivities. There was only one problem: no cherry blossoms. They’d already come and gone – early – in fact, it was just about the earliest bloom in the century since the festival began. Washington was not the only place that experienced summer in March. Some 15,000 temperature records fell across the eastern half of the U.S.  In parts of Canada, temperatures were higher in March than the previously recorded highs for April.

Now we all know that you can’t really attribute any single event – like a blossom-less Cherry Blossom Festival–to global warming. But even among TV weathercasters, who are generally skeptical of climate change, its emerging influence is getting hard to ignore. Here’s what Stu Ostro, chief meteorologist at The Weather Channel, had to say about the record heat: “While natural factors are contributing to this warm spell, given the nature of it and its context with other extreme weather events and patterns in recent years, there is a high probability that global warming is having an influence…”

My point is this: the impacts of climate change are being felt now–and, on our present course, they are certain to intensify. At some levels, this reality is beginning to sink in.  As the Arctic sea ice begins to melt away, Canada, the United States, Russia and other Arctic states are very actively considering the implications for shipping, for resource development, and for security. Some are strengthening their military capabilities in the region. But in too many places–including here and in Washington–the growing risks of climate change are not yet real enough with the public, or with our political leaders, to drive the changes needed to avert the worst of them.  

Twenty years after the first Rio summit–which launched the international climate effort–we are barely making a dent in the problem. Global leaders agreed in Copenhagen on a goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius. To meet that goal, according to most scenarios, global greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2015. That’s three years away. Instead, global emissions are projected to grow 17 percent by 2020, and 37 percent by 2035. Under that scenario, we could see average global temperatures rise 3 to 4 degrees by 2100.

So let me come back to Washington, and a second recent event: the latest step by the Obama administration to regulate greenhouse gases. The recession has significantly moderated U.S. emissions. They dropped 9 percent from 2007 to 2009. They’re now rising again, but fairly slowly. In fact, current projections don’t show emissions returning to 2005 levels until after 2035. But they would still likely be significantly higher in 2020 than the target pledged by the U.S. in Copenhagen.

Three years ago, you may recall, the goal was comprehensive legislation, including an economy-wide cap-and-trade program. A bill did pass the House, which was at the time controlled by the Democrats, but the effort fizzled in the Senate. The Republicans took control of the House in the next election–and a number of moderate Democrats who’d supported the bill were tossed out. Prospects for any major climate legislation in the near future are now generally put at nil.

So the only option open to the Administration is to regulate greenhouse gases under the federal Clean Air Act–and at the moment, it is proceeding cautiously. When it came to reducing emissions from cars and light trucks, the Administration was able to capitalize on a particular set of circumstances to deliver a genuine breakthrough. The automakers were already being pushed by California to lower emissions, and having just been rescued from bankruptcy by Washington, were more obliging than usual. The resulting rules – one already in place, the other pending–will increase the fuel economy of the average new vehicle from 30 miles a gallon today to 50 miles a gallon by 2025, avoiding some 3 billion metric tons of greenhouse emissions. 

Now the Administration is turning its attention to stationary sources–starting with power plants. Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a rule to limit greenhouse gases from new power plants. Under the proposed rule, they could not exceed the level emitted by a natural gas combined cycle plant – the most efficient now available. Any new coal-fired plants would have to use carbon capture-and-storage, which could be phased in over time. The reality, though, is that with the natural gas boom there is virtually no talk of building new coal plants.  So the rule would more or less lock in the direction things are projected to be heading anyway. The bigger question is what happens at existing power plants, which account for 40 percent of U.S. emissions. On that–or any other steps to control stationary sources – we’re unlikely to hear anything at all out of EPA until after the November election.

This is, of course, a presidential election year, which helps explain the context for a third recent event in Washington–one that no doubt more of you will have heard about. I’m talking about the President’s denial of a permit for the Keystone pipeline.  

Those of you very familiar with the manmade geography of North America know that Keystone would be but one more addition to a vast network of pipelines linking our two countries. Insofar as it would continue our dependence on high-carbon fuels–something that’s true of countless other investment decisions being made around the globe–Keystone is indeed worrisome. But given the global nature of the oil market, building or blocking Keystone is unlikely to have any significant impact on the price of gas, the U.S. job market, or greenhouse gas emissions. With or without Keystone, as long as oil prices remain high, the Canadian oil sands will continue to be developed, and that oil will reach market. If the real problem is, as I believe, our dependence on oil, then the real answers are reducing consumption and developing alternatives. Blocking Keystone does neither.

Yet with this being an election year; with the economy still struggling; with gasoline prices at record highs; with Keystone advocates promising jobs, cheaper gas and energy security; and with climate advocates rallying outside the White House, it’s easy to see how Keystone has emerged as a symbolic flashpoint. The upshot for now is that a southern section of the pipeline, fully within the U.S., is proceeding, and the President has left the door open for a revised proposal for the upper, transboundary portion.  

The political theatrics of the Keystone episode–with the president trying to punt the issue past the election, and Republicans in Congress forcing him to make a decision now, and the President managing to punt it anyway–underscore a troubling aspect of the climate and energy debate in the U.S.: like so many others, it has become increasingly partisan.

Which leads me to a fourth telling event recently in Washington: A group called Republicans for Environmental Protection took “Republican” out of its name. The group is now called ConservAmerica, a switch that its leaders say is aimed at better highlighting the conservative roots of conservation. Indeed, as far back as Teddy Roosevelt, some of America’s greatest environmental achievements have come with Republicans in power. But Republican moderates are today a disappearing breed. Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, one of the last remaining, announced her retirement recently. Looking back over her 33 years in Congress, she lamented that “an atmosphere of polarization and ‘my may or the highway’ ideologies has become pervasive in campaigns and in our governing institutions.”

Even outside the hyper-partisan atmosphere of Washington, there is a clear partisan divide. Sixty-five percent of Democrats believe global warming is mainly caused by human activities, while among Republicans, it’s only 36 percent. Most Americans generally support an all-of-the-above approach to energy. But here, too, there are clear partisan differences: while roughly 85 percent of Democrats favor more government money for wind and solar, as well as mandatory CO2 controls, 85 percent of Republicans favor opening more federal land to oil drilling.

So that is how things look right now. I imagine many of you are wondering how they might look after the election. And I’ll get there. But for now, I’d like to put Washington aside for a moment and turn, as promised, to the international picture.

I think years from now, it is quite possible that we will look back at the UN climate conference last December in Durban as a critical turning point. The deal that was finally eked out there at 3 in the morning, 30 hours after the conference was supposed to end, delivers little in the way of concrete action. But it does open up some possibilities. I’d say it is a deal delicately poised between two eras in the evolving international climate regime–between the fading age of Kyoto, and a new phase beyond Kyoto, with developed and developing countries presumably on a more equal footing. What that phase might look like is at this stage very difficult to say.

Since the very start of the climate negotiations, there has been a tension between two different approaches: a top-down model with binding targets and timetables; and a bottom up approach called pledge-and-review, with countries undertaking voluntary efforts, and subject to some form of international review. Twenty years later, we’ve yet to choose between them. Right now, we are in fact pursuing both.

We’ve tried the top-down model, of course, in the form of the Kyoto Protocol. The theory there was that binding international commitments would drive domestic action. One might point to Canada as a clear exception in this case–or, perhaps, as proof that the whole theory is wrong. I, for one, think the truth likely lies somewhere in between. We’re all familiar with the Kyoto critique: that it covers a small and shrinking share of global emissions, while leaving emerging economies like China and India free to emit all they want. Canada is the only country to have actually withdrawn from the protocol, but others like Russia and Japan have made abundantly clear for some time that they want nothing to do with it after 2012.  

Now interestingly, even as Kyoto has been sputtering along, other things have been happening in the international regime. The 2009 Copenhagen summit, declared by many a failure because it didn’t produce a binding agreement, did in fact produce an important political agreement, one calling for both developed and developing countries to pledge climate targets or actions for 2020. The Copenhagen Accord also called for a new climate fund for developing countries, and stronger transparency measures so parties could better keep tabs on one another. In another wee-hour episode, this one perhaps best forgotten, formal adoption of the accord was blocked in the final moments by a handful of parties. But a year later in Cancun, parties adopted all of its major elements and began implementing them. They were, in essence, creating a parallel framework that looks very much like pledge and review.

The upside is that so far, more than 80 countries have made explicit pledges for 2020. This includes, for the first time, all of the major economies, both developed and developing. The downside is that taken together these pledges fall far short of what’s needed to put us on track for the 2-degree target adopted in Copenhagen, and again in Cancun.    

For all its failings, the Kyoto Protocol retains enormous symbolism around the globe as the first and only binding commitments to fight climate change.  And going into Durban, many developing countries were adamant that if there was to be any deal there, Kyoto’s survival had to be part of it.  While Canada and others were saying count us out, Europe said it might well be willing to take a new Kyoto target, but on one condition: that parties launch a new round of negotiations toward a binding comprehensive agreement.  

That became the crux of the Durban deal: Europe and a handful of others agreed to take new Kyoto targets, keeping the protocol alive, if only barely.  Parties took a number of steps to further flesh out the framework emerging from Copenhagen and Cancun.  And they adopted the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, launching new talks aimed at a new agreement in 2015.

What kind of agreement?  If you look to the Durban Platform for guidance, you won’t find much.  Here is the critical passage: parties “launch a process to develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all parties.”  There are two central issues embedded here, and on both, these words leave considerable ambiguity.

The first issue is the agreement’s legal character–will it be legally binding? A protocol would meet that test. So, presumably would “another legal instrument.” But the third option contained in the text–“an agreed outcome with legal force”–is a completely novel formulation. An artful one, to be sure, but one easily open to interpretation. And the interpretations already being suggested by some parties sound less than binding, at least as it’s been conventionally understood.

The second issue is the balance of responsibility between developed and developing countries, a perennial concern. Back at the start, in the Rio convention, the parties spoke to this issue by laying down the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities.” A country’s responsibility varies according to its contribution to the problem, and its capacity to address it. Kyoto applied this principle in an especially stark and especially rigid manner: binding targets for developed countries, no new commitments for developing countries, and no clear path for ever moving beyond that.  One thing that can be said of the Durban Platform is that it sweeps away this strict notion of differentiation, and with good reason. China has overtaken the United States at the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, and collectively, developing countries now account for nearly 60 percent of annual emissions.

But beyond discarding the strict binary differentiation of Kyoto, Durban offers scant guidance. While it doesn’t directly invoke the phrase “common but differentiated responsibilities,” it does so implicitly by placing the new agreement “under the Convention.” It would be a mistake to think for a minute that developing countries have in any way abandoned this core principle. And while Durban says the new agreement will be “applicable to all parties,” the same actually could be said of Kyoto, so it’s hard to read that as ensuring full symmetry.

On another issue–the form of commitments to be taken–Durban is utterly silent. The Copenhagen and Cancun agreements were clear that developed country pledges were to be economy-wide emission targets, while developing countries were free to pledge in any form they chose. Is that the presumption for next time? Can’t say.

So on the one hand, by knocking down the so-called firewall between developed and developing countries erected by the Kyoto Protocol, and by establishing a strong preference at least for a binding outcome, the Durban Platform opens up, for the first time, the possibility of a balanced, binding agreement. On the other hand, it tells us virtually nothing about what that agreement should look like.

Let’s look again at the two models we’ve already created. One option might be to keep the Kyoto approach of binding emission targets, but this time set targets for the major developing countries too. Realistically, I see very little chance of getting there by 2015. Another option is to keep building up the framework coming out of Copenhagen and Cancun. It’s proven to be a very inclusive framework, while allowing differentiation between developed and developing countries in the form of their commitments.   

But how would we move it beyond pure pledge and review? Can we make it a system that actually encourages countries to elevate their efforts by giving them confidence that others are doing their fair share? Can we agree on what a fair share of effort is?  Will countries be ready to legally bind themselves? And with Canada providing proof that binding is not always binding, we really do have to ask ourselves, what is it we even mean by binding?

As we start looking for answers, I think this is a good moment to reconsider what it is we are actually looking to the international climate regime to accomplish. Experience has shown us that in the case of many countries, including many of the largest emitters, we cannot realistically expect the international regime to drive the domestic effort. But I believe it can serve to facilitate and to encourage; and as the place where emerging national efforts are stitched together, hopefully in ways that that build confidence and a sense of reciprocity that, over time, delivers a stronger collective effort.

If that is one’s vision of the international effort, then what follows is that the real work to be done right now is not in the international negotiations, but rather, at home. So let me return to Washington, and our election, and the outlook beyond.

One could very reasonably suggest that a re-elected President Obama would be more favorably inclined to strong climate action than would a President Romney. But the reality is that how quickly we are able to ramp up the U.S. effort depends a lot more on factors other than who occupies the White House. First and foremost is the state of the economy, and while there are hopeful signs, we’re not out of the woods yet. The next most important factor is probably the level of public awareness and concern, and that may be very closely linked to the weather.  In a recent survey, a large majority of Americans said they believe global warming is making the weather more extreme. As the impacts become more pronounced, so may public support for action.

And regardless of who’s in the White House, it matters a lot who is in Congress. Right now the situation is so fluid that you couldn’t rule out the possibility of either the Democrats or the Republicans taking both houses. I think it is fair to say that whatever the outcome of the election, stronger action, whether in Congress or through EPA, will remain an uphill fight.

Given that outlook, we see two priorities. The first is to continue laying the ground for a comprehensive policy solution by working with all parties to explore the options, and by helping to strengthen public awareness and concern. The second is to find ways to make concrete progress now, piece by piece, by looking for opportunities where different interests converge, and are prepared to compromise around practical solutions. To cite just one example, we recently pulled together a group from industry, government, labor and the environmental community that worked out joint recommendations to expand enhanced oil recovery using CO2 captured from power plants and industrial facilities. It’s a plan that would reduce CO2 emissions while boosting domestic oil production. We need to find more opportunities like this, get people together, and prove that progress is possible.

I’d like to end where I began, by noting that climate change is no longer remote–it is here and now. I understand that just as Washington’s festival goers missed out on the cherry blossoms, the world’s largest ice skating rink barely made an appearance this winter. Up north, the permafrost is melting, the sea ice is shrinking, and the ancient ways of the Inuit are in danger. We can see the signs, and we have begun to take some steps. But the truth is that neither the U.S. nor Canada is yet coming to grips with the climate realities and climate risks that we face.  We are not out of time, but it is running short. There are serious choices upon us.  Let us hope we choose well.