I have to admit, seeing President Barack Obama finally walk up to the podium did make my heart beat just a little bit faster. After so much hype about his arrival - the potential visit in the first week, then a firm commitment to support the process personally in the second week and, yesterday, some rumours that he may not come after all – it was exciting to finally see him there. Agile, hopping onto the stage, adjusting the microphone, obviously fully comfortable in his role of addressing the world on the most important issue of our time. It is all too easy to rekindle your hopes when you see President Obama speak.
His tone of voice was serious yet hopeful. He spoke of climate change being science, not fiction (a comment most likely addressed to his home audience), of not wasting any more time by talking, and of taking action now. Of choosing the future over the past. He eloquently reiterated the US position:
1. All major economies need to declare to take decisive action. The US proposing to reduce emissions by 17% by 2020 and 80% by 2050.
2. Transparency in the reporting of emissions that leads to a credible treaty and accountability of the parties.
3. Financing of adaptation in the poorest countries, with the US contributing $10bn by 2012 for the fast start and later, in 2020, being part of a $100bn funding effort globally. This is contingent on countries signing a treaty that fulfils the first two aims.
This triple aim of mitigation, transparency and financing could be the backbone of a new treaty, says Obama, one that has gone further than any treaty before.
President Obama’s speech was very moving, motivating and makes one think: hey, why have they not all gone for this great deal that seems so honest and makes so much sense. Well, let’s look behind the words and see what is left when we boil down Obama’s speech to what the US is bringing to the table and what they are demanding of others.
Stop talking, start acting – It must be a slap in the face of the countries that have been serious about reducing emissions since signing the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992. The US has spent the majority of the past 17 years either openly blocking progress or complicating talks to absurdity. Surely not Obama’s personal fault, but he is speaking for his country in this forum. Nevertheless, it is a positive note and gives hope for the US finally coming around to accepting climate change as a global challenge.
Choosing the future over the past – This is a direct confrontation with countries like Brazil (whose President gave a passionate speech just minutes earlier) who argue that industrialized countries have been polluting the atmosphere for the past century and cannot tell newly industrialized countries to halt climate change. It depends on your definition of equity. It depends on whether you look at emissions as a flow or a stock. Looking at emission flows, we know that countries such as China and India will be emitting much more in the future; looking at emission stocks, we know that most of the dreadful stuff in the atmosphere is due to industrialized countries having burned fossil fuels to fire up their economies in the past. President Obama wants us to look at climate change as a challenge for the future, not a bundle of opportunist behaviour of the past.
Mitigation – It is indeed very comforting to hear the US speak of mitigation. After all these years of the Bush doctrine, that is very refreshing. However, the numbers Obama is bringing to the table are very low. In his speech, he neglected to mention that the 17% reduction refers to the baseline year of 2005, a year of strong economic growth and high emissions in the US. Usually, negotiators refer to the baseline year of 1990, which is the one used in the Kyoto Protocol. When calculating the proposed US emission cut on a baseline year of 1990, we get a mere 4% of emission reduction. This is well below the proposed EU target of 20-30% and even below the US target that Clinton’s administration signed in Kyoto in 1997. I looked it up – it was 7% then. When Obama says ‘all major economies’ he means China. China has proposed taking on a target, albeit an emission intensity target, which takes the edge off the argument that the US has used for years to justify its refusal to act on climate change. It is questionable, whether Obama’s meagre emission reduction target can be called ‘decisive action’ and hence complies with his own first major aim.
Transparency – Now that China has come forward with a target, the US has a new complaint: are they really going to do it and how do we know? Both the Convention and the Protocol require industrialized countries to report their emissions according to agreed-upon methodologies. These emission inventories are checked by UN staff. Developing countries have been cut some slack and can report their emissions in any way they want and at any time they want. They do receive guidance from the UN but are not checked rigorously. Having said that, some industrialized countries have in the past failed to report adequately and timely. Given these previously agreed upon rules, countries such as China could take on targets but would not be monitored. The US, as an industrialized country and a member of the OECD, is under much more stringent requirements to report emissions. So, Obama’s requirement number two is firmly aimed at newly industrializing countries. It is a demand, not an offer.
Financing – Hilary Clinton already announced the large number of $100bn by 2020 yesterday. It turns out that this is not something the US administration will provide, but something that the US proposes to be part of as a global effort, both from governments and industry. It is supposed to be raised through public and private partnerships. It is a relief to see that President Obama was able to underscore that with a promise of a more concrete $10bn by 2012, similar to the EU amount, to support adaptation efforts by the most vulnerable in a fast start programme. But here is the hook – it is conditional to signing an agreement that the US deems ‘decisive’. Basically, it is a bribe for the least developed countries and other vulnerable states to pressure China to bow to US demands.
Mitigation, transparency and financing – Even with all its faults, the Kyoto Protocol already contains these three elements. Why not just ratify that and build on it to make it a better treaty in its second commitment period?
Overall then, Obama brings very little to the negotiation table: a mere 4% cut in emissions and some money if conditions are met. The only reason one can be excited about this is that, for once, they are not entirely blocking the process from the start. Asking China to open its books to UN evaluators is the gamble that Obama is willing to take to save the planet. If climate change is such a real concern to the country, why is the US not moving ahead with more ambitious plans to be part of the solution?