International climate negotiations often seem like some sort of cosmic science fair project — an aquarium full of hamsters connected to rudimentary motors. There’s a lot of frantic running, a lot of sweat and heat, but in the end, very little light.

Faith in the UN climate process has dimmed. Joe Romm calls it a “dead man walking.” The Copenhagen talks in December are generally discussed with the same dissonant mixture of urgency (“You have to do it in Copenhagen,” says UNFCCC chair Yvo de Boer) and fatalism (“There is no movement,” says German environment minister Sigmar Gabriel) as the last dozen rounds of international talks.

The Obama administration knows the danger of sclerosis and is working on several fronts to regain a sense of momentum. A good bit of that work will happen during this busy week, which will take the president to Russia to meet with President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin; he’ll deliver a major speech on U.S.-Russia relations today. On Wednesday, he heads to Italy for the latest meeting of the G8 countries (US, France, UK, Russia, Germany, Japan, Italy, Canada). On Thursday, on the sidelines of the G8, Obama will convene a meeting of the Major Economies Forum (the G8 plus Australia, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Korea, Mexico, Russia, South Africa). On Friday he’ll head to Ghana and on Saturday he’ll deliver a major speech on development and democracy.

At all these events the issue of climate change will play a role. All will reveal something about the Obama administration’s approach to international climate negotiations.

The Grand Plan

International climate negotiations have primarily been channeled through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, but many in the international community are losing faith in that process, or at least in its monopoly on negotiations. Getting 192 countries to sign on to a meaningful treaty is nigh impossible; the lowest common denominator among 192 wildly diverse countries turns out to be pretty damn low.

Oddly, it was the Bush administration that first saw a way around the thicket. In May 2007 it announced a series of Major Economies Meetings on climate and energy security. The idea was that the largest greenhouse gas emitters could more easily find areas of agreement working directly with one another, and that what consensus they could find would help break the logjam in the UNFCCC process.

The sincerity of Bush’s effort was widely doubted — he (in)famously advocated for purely voluntary measures — but the basic wisdom of the strategy is apparent to, among others, the Obama administration. In fact Obama seems to be taking it even farther, working not only with smaller groups like the Major Economies Forum (MEF) and the G8, but bilaterally with other large emitters. What shape these smaller deals take could vary, from shared targets to technology R&D agreements, but again, the idea is to show that big emitters are finally acting, taking real steps. This will, it is hoped, cut through the Gordian you-go-first knot sure to bedevil the Copenhagen climate talks.

The strategy began with Todd Stern’s initial efforts in China, but “you can definitely say we are looking for other partners,” an administration official said.

Green map

Russia

Most members of the international community had written Russia off when it comes to climate change. It grudgingly ratified Kyoto back in 2004, serving as the crucial final signatory needed to put the treaty into effect. But since then it’s focused on nothing but often dirty and inefficient means of expanding its economy. Just last month, in what many interpreted as a thumb in the eye of the UN process, it announced a “climate plan” that would increase its greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent by 2020.

The reason Russia, a Kyoto signatory, can grow its emissions so heedlessly is that emission baselines for the UN process were set at 1990 levels. Of course in 1992 Russia’s economy cratered, and with it the country’s emissions. The damage was so great that the economy would need to grow substantially to meet a target of 10-15% below 1990 levels by 2020 — and that’s what it plans to do.

Most observers expected Obama to focus exclusively on arms control and the financial crisis when he goes to Russia, since progress on climate seems so hopeless. But as The Guardian reports, the administration fully intends to forge a deal on joint climate action. It’s been pulling its ideas from a new report from the Center on American Progress.

The goal is to coax Russia into accepting strong sticks (mandatory targets at the Copenhagen talks) by offering it carrots. One is help entering carbon trading markets. The country is thought to be sitting on some 1.9 billion euros worth of carbon credits — one of the main reasons it signed Kyoto — but the government does not have the capacity or infrastructure to monitor emissions and approve projects. The U.S. could help with that, since it has considerable experience with such markets.

The other carrot is efficiency. Russia’s energy intensity — energy use per unit of GDP — is twice America’s, and the highest among the world’s high energy consuming countries. Targeted exchange of efficiency technology and know-how could not only bend Russia’s emissions curve but make its economy more productive. It’s a win-win, but again, the government needs help. (Interestingly, Russia just announced that it will ban some incandescent lights by 2011.)

No big U.S.-Russia agreements on climate are expected this week, but Monday saw the introduction of a working group on energy, formed as part of a high-level bilateral commission created out of the summit. Steven Chu will chair the group on the US side.

G8 + MEF

The MEF is a smaller group of countries than the full UNFCCC, but it’s still large and diverse, and there are enormous challenges in the way of getting a substantive agreement this week. Here are a few:

  • 2°: Italy is hosting the G8 this year, and it (along with Australia) is keen to have G8 countries sign on to a formal declaration committed to having global emissions peak by 2020 and keeping global average temperatures under 2° above pre-industrial levels (the IPCC’s recommendation). The U.S. signaled a while back that it wouldn’t make such a commitment but has since come around. Reports from the field indicate the 2° language will appear in the MEF statement as well.
  • MEF targets: A draft version of the MEF statement was put forward by the U.S. and Mexico last month. It offered the “aspirational global goal” of having developed countries cut emissions 80%, and developing countries 50%, by 2050. (Whether the goal should be “aspirational” is a point of contention between the US and the EU.) It also, in a crucial nod to developing countries, said that developed nations would “undertake robust aggregate and individual mid-term reductions in the 2020 timeframe.” It also set a goal of having MEF countries double investment in low-carbon technology by 2015. However, developing nations want firmer, short-term commitments from rich countries, on the order of 40% by 2020. (U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern has said that ain’t gonna happen.) India, among others, has signaled that it will not commit to the targets in the draft and is downplaying the likelihood of a substantial agreement.
  • Base year: What year’s CO2 emissions should serve as the baseline against which targets are measured? Developing countries want to use 1990. Why? Because developed nations had smaller economies then, and lower emissions, so reducing from that baseline would require much larger, more concerted action on their part. So far the negotiated text for the MEF hasn’t settled on a base year.
  • International assistance: How should responsibility for climate change be apportioned? Developing countries want to go by cumulative emissions, which would place the burden of responsibility for the current state of affairs squarely on developed countries. They say rich nations ought to be sending between $100-$200 billion a year to developing countries as reparations and sustainable development assistance. (Britain has proposed a $100 billion a year fund.) Suffice to say, the U.S. Congress, where any international aid is viewed with suspicion, is unlikely to welcome such proposals. An ominous last-minute addition to the Waxman-Markey bill in the House [Sec3, International Participation] would mandate a yearly report on whether China and India — just China and India! — are doing their fair share, whatever that is deemed to be by the Congress of the time.

China + India

The overwhelming short-term priorities for developing countries are poverty reduction and economic development, driven in part by coal-based power. That’s why China and India have both recently signaled that they will not commit to any binding GHG reduction targets. No, seriously, they won’t. Says Indian environment minister Jairam Ramesh, “India will not accept any emissions targets — period. It is the bottom line; a non-negotiable stand. This is not something that India is going to budge on, under any circumstances.” OK then!

Both countries (India; China) have also recently expressed ostentatious outrage about the possibility that the United States will impose “carbon tariffs” on imported goods. (A border adjustment provision was inserted in the Waxman-Markey bill before it passed the House.) Developing countries warn of an incipient trade war. Of course, as John Kemp points out, the provisions in the bill are not actually carbon tariffs but “carefully structured as import permits specifically to ensure they are consistent with World Trade Organisation rules.” And sure enough, the WTO has signaled that the import permits are legal. China and India fear them.

Obama has spoken publicly against the border adjustments, but as Brad Plumer notes, it’s helpful to have that stick in hand to make the carrots look better. (Todd Stern didn’t have it when he went to China early last month.)

Of course China is hardly sitting on its hands. It’s green stimulus package was both larger and greener than America’s. Just this month it boosted its renewable energy targets to 15% by 2020. It looks set to swamp the U.S. in both wind and solar investment this year; between now and 2020, it’s expected to spend more on renewables and nuclear than on oil and coal.

The central government has established the State Council’s Expert Panel on Climate Change Policy to work on energy development plans that will involve trillions in investment. “Roughly, we need to spend an extra 1 trillion yuan every year to raise energy efficiency,” said panel member Bai Quan. Just as importantly, maybe more so, it announced that regional government officials will be judged by reductions in carbon intensity instead of purely by economic growth. Getting career bureaucrats on board is essential to making sure the central planners’ schemes become reality. The green shift is dispersing into rural areas as well.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke will head to China later this month to talk turkey. Says Chu, “It’s in our interest and China’s to explore ways to cooperate for our mutual benefit–by promoting renewable energy, encouraging energy efficiency and cutting pollution.” Chu’s assistant secretary David Sandalow is hosting a high-level discussion on engaging China on CCS this Thursday in D.C.; a second, focused on finance and political barriers, will happen soon thereafter.

You can imagine Chu announcing a splashy post-combustion CCS development project, or an investment in solar thermal projects, in exchange for back-channel agreements on a timeline for the country to accept hard emission reductions targets (and back off on border adjustment fussing).

What’s next

Japan and Brazil are among the other countries with which Obama may pursue bilateral deals, possibly before Copenhagen. The big sticking point with Brazil is avoided deforestation. They don’t want it paid for via carbon credits, through the Reduced Emissions through Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) program — they want it paid for with cold hard cash (so old-fashioned!). So far, no one except Norway is biting.

If all goes well — an enormous if, of course — the U.S. negotiating team arrive at Copenhagen with a web of bi- and multi-lateral side deals on clean energy technology sharing, adaptation research, development assistance, trade deals, and more. The world’s biggest polluters will arrive with agreements in hand. Developing countries will see signs of real movement on the part of developed nations and soften their rigid opposition to targets.

And out of it all will come a stronger, more robust climate treaty, scaffolded by the self-interest of the many countries invested in side deals premised on continued international action.

That’s the hope anyway. Needless to say: domestic achievements notwithstanding, if Obama can pull it off he’ll be assured of a place in history.