Earlier this past summer, African countries for the first time announced that they would come to Copenhagen as a distinct negotiating bloc.  For those who follow the role Africa has played in international environmental negotiations, this was a major development.  In previous multilateral environmental agreements, African countries traditionally negotiated under the umbrella group known as the G77 and had little visibility in the debate.  In Copenhagen, the still-young negotiating bloc is already showing signs of maturation.

A common criticism that is often made about coalitions from developing countries is that they are good at blocking proposals from developed countries, and not so good at proposing their own solutions.  Indeed, that accusation is quite evident here in Copenhagen, with the US and the EU blaming the G77 and China for stalling the talks (although the G77 is also pointing fingers at the developed countries as the obstacle).

The African Group’s emergence as a distinct negotiating bloc started out with an image that the Group was nothing more than a “blocking” coalition.  In November, the Group stunned other delegates when the African negotiators walked out of talks in Barcelona and brought the discussions to a halt. The African delegation explained that they were frustrated by the developed countries’ refusal to commit to substantial emissions reductions and come up with major funding for adaptation and mitigation.  Almost the same drama played out here in Copenhagen again earlier this week when the African coalition threatened to leave the negotiating table over the same objections that they had raised in Barcelona.

But the African Group realizes that complaining alone will not advance their interests, much less win them new friends.  That is why the Group teamed up with France a few days ago and came up with a proposal that was well received in the Bella Center.  The new proposal aims to resolve the sticking points that have divided the developed and developing nations.  Among other things, the proposal calls for:

  • Halving global CO2 emissions by 2050 compared to 1990, and by extension that developed countries reduce their emissions by at least 80%.  The proposal is silent on midterm targets, probably because the African Group and the French could not agree on a specific number;
  • Strong commitment on long-term financing for mitigation and adaptation in developing countries.  These funds would be in the tune of $100 billion by 2020.
  • A “fast start” fund between 2010 and 2012 in the amount of $10 billion per year.  The proposal states that 40 percent of these funds should go to adaptation projects in Africa;
  • Create a high-level expert group within the UNFCCC system that will administer the “fast start” funds and the long term financing funds.

The African and French initiative is beginning to gain momentum, with Hillary Clinton announcing that the United States would be willing to support this financing scheme.  This is the first time that the US has backed such a fund, and it shows that the African Group has been successful in influencing the US to go along with this proposal.

But it is also important to point out that not all African countries and NGOs are happy with the deal that the lead African negotiator, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, cut with the French.  Some countries like Nigeria are unhappy that the Group accepted a $100 billion by 2020 and see the 10 billion amount in the “fast start” fund as inadequate for adaptation and mitigation needs in developing countries.  The Pan-African Alliance for Climate Justice also criticized the deal as not encompassing the interest of all Africans.  But at the end of the day, a coalition as diverse as the African Group will always have some internal differences.  The key point is that they have been able to stick together as a group, and that there presence is beginning to be felt more than ever before. In the Bella Center and in other parts of Copenhagen where climate change talks are talking place, the Africa Group is being talked about more than ever before.

For the African Group, time will tell if becoming a distinct coalition of their own is better than allowing the G77 to define their positions, but for now it is fair to say that the young African coalition is showing sign of maturation. — Mukhtar Amin


The Kyoto Surprise Revisited

December 18, 2009

In the final hours of the Kyoto Protocol talks in 1997, when negotiators were as tired and grumpy as they are sure to be tonight and tomorrow, the parties struck a compromise for financing emissions reductions called the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).

The CDM was called the “Kyoto Surprise,” and most of my week here in Copenhagen has been spent tromping through the snow to track down NGOs and interview partners who are debating how the surprise will weather its adolescence in the new climate architecture.

The CDM provides opportunities for industrialized countries with emission-reduction commitments to finance and implement emission-reducing projects in developing countries. Such projects earn saleable Certified Emission Reduction (CER) credits, which industrialized countries can count towards meeting their Kyoto targets.

The nitty gritty of the system is a labyrinthine bore, but the social effects on communities where these projects take place are crucially important. This was the focus of my research this summer in India, where communities of wastepickers and informal recyclers, some of the poorest citizens in the country, have been thrown into competition for garbage with CDM-funded waste-to-energy incinerator projects. It was excellent for me to see that the wastepickers held an official side event here during the first week of the negotiations. Watch the webcast of the event from the UN site.

Here’s the rub: the basic requirement of any CDM project is that it provides cost-effective emissions reductions and sustainable development benefits. Kyoto never defines sustainable development, but it is commonly understood to involve environmental, social, and economic dimensions. The CDM executive board must sign off on all emissions reductions, but it is host country governments, not the executive board, who determine whether or not a project contributes to sustainable development.

I’m beginning to realize that one of the most beguiling aspects of CDM reform is to find ways to develop and implement criteria, best practices, and oversight for the social dimensions of these projects, so that the environmental and economic aspects (the “cost-effective emissions reductions”) don’t fall victim to their own success.

One of the few places I’ve seen this happening is in the voluntary carbon markets. Tonight I attended a discussion with some voluntary carbon standard organizations such as Gold Standard and Social Carbon (after which I saw Al Gore marching through the hotel with a gaggle of hangers-on). These organizations are ahead of the UN on this one, perhaps because they are owned by NGOs.  When I ask how the sustainability matrices they’ve developed for their carbon credit verification systems might be mainstreamed into the CDM project approval process at the country level, I’m met with sympathetic shoulder shrugs and business cards.

This all assumes, of course, that reform is preferable to just chucking the CDM into the North Sea. Last night, a slightly drunk Scotsman leaned over his Grolsch to remind me that since the CDM was developed to bring incremental financing for technology upgrades and to get new projects over barriers in existing frameworks, it is by definition not going to lead to the kind of innovative thinking and bold action needed to shift our economies onto cleaner paths and achieve deep and lasting cuts in emissions.

Depending on who I’m speaking with, the CDM has either been a success because it has channeled billions of dollars to clean development in poor countries, or an exploitative failure because of its capricious and secretive executive board, geographical inequality, dubious emissions reductions and questionable contributions to sustainable development. CDM reform seems to be a given, but the draft texts that came out of the working groups yesterday showed only incremental improvements and planted a few new landmines.

One positive development in recent days is that there seems to have been a new category created, identifying developing countries that have less than 10 CDM projects. The number 10 is rather arbitrary, but in an effort at more equitable distribution (the vast majority are currently hosted by China and India), the text gives a boost to countries with few projects by 1) simplifying the methodologies and approval processes for small projects that are more likely to occur in these countries; 2) offering to delay the registration fees by granting loans that are later repaid from the carbon credit revenue; and 3) mandating that 10% of the credits purchased by industrialized countries must come from the under-10- club of developing countries.

Unfortunately, the texts are also considering whether or not to include carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects and nuclear energy projects in the CDM. Both are pretty terrible ideas. In a CCS project, carbon is captured at a power plant, liquefied, and then injected deep underground into geological formations. (Ironically, the best spots are depleted oil fields). The technology is lauded in wealthy countries, but few demonstration projects have been undertaken because of the prohibitive cost and fears about the safety and permanence of geological storage. Would an earthquake belch it back up? So if CCS is included in the CDM in the new agreement, it would provide a way to test the technology in low cost settings, but it would essentially make poor countries the guinea pigs for CCS demonstration projects. Duh.  Ditto with nuclear.

In my estimation, neither of these project types are going to make it through the weekend, but pressure on the CDM executive board for their inclusion will certainly continue down the line. Yet if they are explicitly shot down, it would be a victory for the NGO and activist community who has been pushing for a CDM Blacklist for some time.  In addition to CCS and nuclear, they’d like to see large hydropower, coal, and waste incineration on that list.

The Kyoto Surprise is growing up, and so the fight begins about how to discipline this unruly kid.

Side events by IETA

December 17, 2009

Given the difficulty entering the Bella Center, I’ve positioned myself for most of the conference down the street at the Crown Plaza where the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) is putting on a full week of side events about carbon markets and the future of regulatory systems at both the national and subnational levels.  In contrast to the KlimaForum, another off-site venue attracting a range of NGOs including human rights leaders and activists concerned with climate change, the IETA event feels diametrically opposed, focused almost entirely on and represented primarily by the private sector.  But while I find both perspectives very important, I decided on the IETA events as my main area of research concerns emission trading.

Holding the coveted "secondary" badge

The first panel I attended discussed China’s newly developed Panda Standard, the first domestic market ever to be established in China that specifically focuses on the agriculture and forestry sectors.  These sectors largely affect the rural and poorer areas of China in the western part of the country that has not benefited from foreign capital coming into China through international offset projects under the CDM.  This market looks to be very successful due to its partnership with BlueNext, one of Europe’s largest and most effective carbon traders, and the support of China’s National Development and Reform Commission, China’s largest and most influential ministry.

My biggest doubt about this market is who are the buyers for these credits?  One speaker on the panel claimed demand would come from companies in China looking to support the rural sections of the country while making their operations carbon neutral.  I am unsure if Chinese companies will be motivated to invest much into this voluntary market, especially when China will most likely need to meet mandatory reductions in intensity of greenhouse gas emissions.  Some ministers have suggested that finding a way to make these voluntary emission reductions (VERs) compatible with certified emission reductions (CERs) would result in much demand.  But no mechanism currently exists for merging VERs and CERs into the same market as these two standards are fundamentally different. The path to make China’s Panda Standard viable still has many hurdles to overcome, but should be interesting to watch its future developments.

Another presentations included the private sector’s hopes for the regulatory environment that will be established by the UNFCCC and other governing bodies, progress on the American “smart grid”, adaptation measures in the United States, and innovative ideas about the scope and scale of carbon markets, including the registry of black carbon as a greenhouse gas.  Overall the conference provided a lot of very valuable information but was very American focused.  I learned one reason for this is due to the conferences sponsorship with The Climate Registry that has its roots in California. Nonetheless I greatly enjoyed the range of questions coming from audience and talking with other participants in between meetings and look forward to continuing these conversations at the reception starting in a few minutes.  I will definitely keep tabs on future IETA developments and its work with carbon markets.

Forest related issues bring a lot of complexity to the climate change negotiations, and for a long time these where absent in the negotiations. Issues like carbon leakage, sequestration measurements, and additionality grew strong buttresses around the stem of uncertainty and sterilized the ground in which an opportunity to mitigate carbon turned into dust. Thus the future for the forests of the world was gloomy; many countries were disillusioned and worried that a new climate change agreement would once again leave forests out. Alongside, biodiversity, ecosystem services, and people livelihoods were being left out, too.

In 2005, after much debate, forests were put back on the agenda with the proposal for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation in Developing Countries, a joint proposal from Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica. Later the so-called REDD proposal was broadened in the Bali Action Plan, to include national and international actions, policy approaches, and positive incentives on mitigation of climate change. It also included the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests, and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries.

Now, one day before the COP15 in Copenhagen is over, the final outcome may include some general agreement around broad political issues. The REDD proposal seems to be the only concrete product of the negotiations. This is beyond belief. It literally makes forests arise from the ashes to becoming the beacon of victory for the conservation and forest sectors. The proposal may not only be writing with strong and clear language; it may also be invigorated by the financial resources aimed at promoting the sustainable use of forest and its conservation in developing countries. For example, on Wednesday December 16, Mr. Thomas Vilsack, US Secretary of Agriculture announced the commitment of the United States to provide US$1 billion a year for the next three years to financing REDD. The announcement was made at the Avoided Deforestation Partners forum in Copenhagen.

Carlos inviting the Governor of Amazonia to our Considering Copenhagen roundtable March 4-5, 2010

Many of the Parties recognize the value of forests. Conserving forests is one of the most cost effective ways to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions. Their maintenance and improvement also provide other numerous ecosystem services to society. However, nothing is firm about REDD until COP15 is concluded and the agreement is signed. Even then, there would be two new challenges. The first challenge is whether countries have sufficient capacities to implement actions and policies by which nearly 20% of the GHGs emissions would be avoided through REDD. The second challenge is the uncertainty about whether the additional funds committed by developed countries in fact are made available. Many parties are prepared to see a halt to deforestation in a near future, from Indonesia to Colombia, from Costa Rica to Suriname, from Brazil to China.  The world wants to be covered with forests.

Let the negotiators at least make this happen in the COP 15 Copenhagen. But let’s not forget the job for climate change is not done yet.

In his press conference yesterday, Chinese lead negotiator Su Wei was asked whether he believed what Senator Kerry had stated in his press conference (namely that the Senate would pass legislation early next year if there was a deal in Copenhagen), and he obliquely replied that the Chinese have a saying, “It’s worth waiting for a feast.”

There’s been a lot of waiting going on during these climate negotiations.  Waiting to get into the Bella Center (or, in the case of many, waiting for 8+ hours but not getting into the center), waiting to see whether or not countries will make new or more ambitious pledges regarding emissions reductions and financing, waiting to see negotiating texts — especially the elusive “Danish text”, and waiting for plenary sessions to start (yesterday’s 1PM session was delayed 9 hours, beginning at 10 PM).  Confusion has reigned, and unlike all the previous UNFCCC negotiations I have ever witnessed, there is a sense that no one really knows what is going on.  Are secret negotiations occurring in the dark recesses of the Bella Center?  Has everyone given up on a meaningful breakthrough so nothing is really happening?  Or, do the negotiators simply not know how to produce a substantial outcome?  My guess it is the latter.

From my standpoint as an observer, even though we are now two days away from the conclusion of COP15, it doesn’t appear that serious negotiations have even begun (aside from the interesting developments on REDD+ — a related blog from Carlos Munos is coming soon).  Congress hamstrings the Obama Administration not only in its ability to offer more stringent targets, but also in its ability to put financial resources on the table; in other words, it cannot negotiate the core issues at hand.   How can the United States shape an effective financial institutional mechanism for the deployment of low-carbon technologies, for example, if it cannot be specific about how much money it can contribute?

Todd Stern’s position coming into COP15 was not a beginning negotiation position; it was his one and only position.  His hands are tied.  The Europeans were so focused on getting a target out of the United States, they apparently forgot that financing for low-carbon technology was a core interest of developing countries.  The Chinese, on the other hand, came with a negotiating position – an intensity target that could definitely be strengthened, and some seeming flexibility on how much financing for mitigation and adaptation would be required.

Recognizing that the Todd Stern cannot actually negotiate in the true sense of the word, Xie Zhenhua does not appear to be interested in being accommodating by making their intensity target “binding” or more stringent, much less agreeing to a robust monitoring, reporting, and verification regime.  The EU appears to be desperate for any deal at all, and the G-77 is being sidelined aside from REDD+.     Meanwhile, the G-77’s sky-high expectations about how much U.S. public financing will be made available for mitigation and adaptation in other countries at a time when unemployment is above 10 percent and more than one in ten Americans are now relying on food stamps to feed themselves are sure to be unmet.

Climate Interactive’s latest tabulation of the commitments, even including the most optimistic interpretation REDD+ deal, result in emissions concentrations of 720 ppm CO2eq., which is associated with a global average temperature change of 6.7° F (or 3.7°C).  An overcooked feast to be sure.

A different approach is needed.

Kelly Sims Gallagher

There are two times this year that in a packed crowd in sub-freezing weather for over 8 hours with no access to food, water, or restrooms.  The first was on January 20th when I tromped down to the mall in Washington, DC before daybreak to get “as close as possible” to the momentous event: the inauguration of President Obama. It was a joyous, albeit exhausting event.

The second time was today, in Copenhagen, as I and hundreds of other would-be COP15 attendees waited outside the Bella Convention Center from pre-dawn to post-dusk in order to register for participation in the momentous event taking place in this city. At 5pm, a gentleman in from the UN spoke to us by bullhorn, from behind a metal barrier and several rows of burly Danish Police.  He had one simple message: I’m sorry, now go home, accreditation is full.

Now let me make two things very clear.  The first is that this man was not addressing a crowd of protestors, but rather a crowd of hundreds of fully accredited press, NGO observers, and even country negotiating-team members, from German ministers to Ghanaian delegates. All of us had paperwork entitling us to entrance to the conference under the UNFCCC’s own self-designed system, but most of us were never let in.

The second thing to make clear is that, despite this fact, my time thus far in Copenhagen has been very productive, educational, and extremely enjoyable. My ten hours in line were by no means fruitless. Instead, I did on the outside what I had come to do on the inside of the conference: I had countless interesting conversations with other participants, I learned a whole lot, traded my Fletcher business cards, and even conducted an informal interview with a former US negotiator about part of my research interest, the history of the development of carbon emissions reporting requirements under Kyoto.

There was the young gentleman who worked for a green-tech start up with whom I spoke about carbon storage in finished products as we shared a cup of coffee, which was being freely distributed by Greenpeace.  And there were the folks from the Natural Resources Defense Council with whom I spoke about dams and increased water flows from melting glaciers in the Andes.  Together, we waited in the cold.

News from the “inside” floated out through text-message and occasional word shouted.  For a brief moment the whole crowd quickly spread the rumor that the whole G-77 had walked out of the negotiations.  As it turned out (and we found out from word of mouth), they had only briefly sat out, in what the NY Times called a “tactical move.” Those moments of thinking the whole negotiation process had gone up in flames were intense.  What I mean to convey is the deep invested interest in the negotiation details from the outside crowd hungry for the tidbits of information that trickled through the walls of the center.  It was exciting.

At one point, when I introduced myself as a Fletcher graduate student to one veteran DC lobbyist, I got a curious response: a pop quiz.

“Here’s a trivia question for a budding climate academic: What’s the Byrd-Hagel Resolution?”

To which I replied something like,
“the Senate’s 95-0 vote in the summer of 1997 which pre-emptively killed US  involvement in the Kyoto Protocol process if it didn’t include binding provisions for key developing countries, why?” (Thanks Professor Gallagher!)

“I wrote that resolution,” came the response. And we hit it off from there.

As we waited longer, and the hours of bathroomlessness and cold wind became more grueling, the intimacy created by our collective experience deepened.  We got to know each other—quite literally breaking bread together (the vegan sandwiches distributed by activists). One woman fainted and we managed to extricate her.

As night fell, the hopelessness (of getting in) really hit.  The crowd became kind of boisterous, changing traditional climate cheers like, “What do we want? Climate Justice! When do we want it? Now!” to our new situation “What do we want? Registration! When do we want it? Now!”  The crowd cried shame on the UN for botching its own accreditation process.  And then we left, being told to come back in the morning and try again.

At this point I took the train to the KlimaForum, a separate “People’s Conference,” in downtown Copenhagen.  No lines or access-restrictions here, but there were heads of state: President Mohammed Nasheed of the Maldives, a small island state under dire threat from sea level rise, gave the evening address, highlighting the need to act and act now.

So after having been here for a day, I have to say that I am somewhat amazed by the fact that core structural issues, like how many texts the conference is trying to produce by week’s end, remain unresolved. In the end, I do remain hopeful in Hopenhagen, despite the lack of progress on some key structural issues, like whether or not to abandon the post-Kyoto negotiating track.

While that not be the same as hoping that we can reduce emissions to such a degree (pun intended) that we might prevent the Maldives from sinking, I do have hope that the attention and emotion focused here, on this point in space and time, must move things for the good.  So, even if we only get a political agreement, or the funding isn’t there for adaptation in developing countries, if we can move things in the right direction, then we can keep the momentum up.  After today, I must say, I have lost some of my faith in the UNFCCC process, but this was more for its logistical ineptitude than the content of the negotiation process.  On that, I will reserve my judgment until the end of the week.



Leaving Logan

December 14, 2009

We’ve all arrived at the airport, with an hour before our plane takes off to Copenhagen and the excitement is palpable.  For the past week I’ve been glued to my computer screen reading the International Institute of Sustainable Development’s (IISD) daily Earth Bulletin.  These reports cover the conference in better detail and less filtered than any other news source out there.  (And Anna Shultz, a Fletcher PhD student, works as one of its main contributors).  I highly recommend you check it out, particularly the “In the Corridors” section at the end of every edition.

The conference has proven more exciting than many people anticipated.  First the leaked Danish proposal caused a controversy especially among many developing countries.  Then Tuvalu responded with its own version of a post-2012 framework.  And yesterday, hundreds if not thousands of people marched from the center of town to the Bella Center where the conference takes place to call for leaders to take a stand and ensure a positive outcome from the conference.  “The climate must change for us to really address Climate Change” rallied one participant.  Unfortunately, now going into the last week of the negotiations, few countries have budged much on their original positions.  Negotiators will have their work cut out for them to produce return to their home countries with solid results from COP 15.

For my own research, it appears that the main carbon offsetting tool, the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), will continue in some form in the post-Kyoto framework, but in what form, no one can tell as of yet.  Negotiators will continue to address offsetting frameworks, saying which sections are acceptable, negotiable, and unacceptable.  I’ll be reporting on these developments further as the conference winds down and results begin to appear.

And this is just from the main negotiations.  Some argue the real show occurs in the hundreds of side events going on both on site and around the Danish capital.  35,000 climate experts from NGOs and IGOs have signed up for the conference, meaning there will be a lot of opportunities for informal conversations with some the leading experts in these areas. Once on ground, we’ll be able to provide better details about the real Copenhagen experience.

They’re calling for our flight to board.  Off we go!