Lima, Peru – Secretary of State John Kerry jetted down today for the 20th Conference of the Parties (COP-20) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). His entourage invaded the press conference room and spent an inordinate amount of time adjusting the lectern, fiddling with the microphones, and minutely tweaking and cleaning the teleprompters not once, not twice, but three times before Kerry showed up. Does our diplomatic service demand obsequiousness?
At the beginning of his climate change pep talk, Kerry singled out his "special guest" Al Gore who was installed in the front row. Kerry noted that Gore was "the leader with all of us on this issue, but the first among equals, believe me, in his passion and commitment to this." I suspect that the Nobel Peace prize winner might think himself a bit more than merely a first among equals in the ranks of climate change combatants.
Kerry recalled that he was at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro at which the UNFCCC was negotiated and had participated in numerous subsequent COPs. (I, too, was there, John.) After 22 years of negotiations, Kerry asserted, "The science of climate change is science, and it is screaming at us, warning us, compelling us—hopefully—to act." Because the international community has failed adequately to heed the science, "We are still on a course leading to tragedy."
The blame for two decades of failed international climate policy rests with both rich and poor nations. "If you are a big developed nation and you are not helping to lead, then you are part of the problem," Kerry declared. But he added that since "more than half of all greenhouse gas emissions are now from developing countries. It is imperative that they act, too."
Kerry noted that the U.S. is on track to meet President Obama's commitment that the country would cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent below their 2005 levels by 2020. He hailed the joint announcement on climate change with China last month as an example of progress toward reining in climate change. But is it really? In the announcement the U.S. intends by 2025 to cut its emissions by as much as 28 percent below their 2005 levels and China intends to peak its emissions by 2030. The announcement creates no obligations of any sort on either nation.
Kerry concluded by arguing that solving climate change is a vast investment opportunity. "The solution to climate change is energy policy," he asserted. Kerry claimed that the trillion dollar infotech boom of 1990s will pale in comparison with the six trillion dollar cleantech boom that an ambitious climate agreement In Paris would spark. In his talk, the Secretary of State somehow overlooked the fact that no vast international treaty specifying quotas, mandates, and taxes was needed to force the creation of infotech markets, innovation and prosperity. If renewable, new nuclear, or even fusion energy is actually becoming cheaper than conventional fossil fuels, why would the world need an international climate change treaty at all?
In any case, will the negotiations here at COP-20 in Lima really set the stage of an ambitious climate agreement in Paris next year? Interestingly, the optimistic atmosphere among the conference tents has dissipated. The old familiar divide between the rich and poor countries has cracked opened again.
On one side, the rich countries, including the U.S., want an agreement in which all countries put forth intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs in diplo-speak) during the first three months of next year. The developed countries largely want to limit INDCs to quantifiable pledges to cut or manage the future emissions of greenhouse gases, e.g. so many millions of tons of carbon dioxide per year. They also want to adopt a set of transparent reporting standards so that it will be easy to compare and evaluate each country's INDC pledges. Additionally, the European Union wants to incorporate a formal process in the Paris agreement for evaluating the adequacy of INDCs, while the U.S. doesn't think that it's absolutely necessary for the new treaty. The EU is also arguing that INDCs should be legally binding for all countries. The U.S. opposes this because that means that Paris agreement would have to gain the assent of the Senate, which is unlikely.
For their part, most poor countries don't want to limit INDCs in the Paris agreement to just efforts aimed at cutting and controlling greenhouse gas emissions. They want to include provisions dealing with climate finance, efforts at adaptation, and so forth. Such INDCs would specifically obligate rich countries to provide funds to developing countries to help them reduce their emissions.
The U.S. and the E.U. respond that the atmosphere is warming because of the accumulation of greenhouse gases and that that should be the chief way to measure success in the effort to reduce future warming. Including finance and adaptation would make it harder to compare INDCs to see how much they are furthering the goal of slowing global warming. Some poor countries are still insisting on the UNFCCC principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities" which they interpret as imposing legally binding targets on developed countries while exempting poor countries from such a requirement. Both China and India argue that a formal process for evaluating INDCs would violate their national sovereignties.
The conference is supposed to wrap up by this evening. The current negotiating text is a Chinese menu list of options indicating that no hard decisions have been agreed to at this point. In a press statement, the charity Oxfam warned, "Unless the text improves, whatever options negotiators choose over the next day will leave many very difficult issues unresolved and keep the world headed down a treacherous road towards extreme warming." Evidently, the climate negotiators here in Lima are treating Kerry's hectoring as so much hot air.