The word “Copenhagen” hangs over climate discussions everywhere from Washington to Wagga Wagga. That’s because in December the world travels to the Danish capital for the 15th Conference of Parties meeting, affectionately referred to as COP15. There, nations large and small hope to reach a new international agreement that would ratchet down global emissions beginning after 2012.
Expectations for a conclusive deal have diminished over the last several months. But negotiations of every stripe continue, and will accelerate through the summer and fall. This week saw nations, businesses, and advocacy groups ramp up activity.
Todd Stern, the U.S. Special Envoy on Climate Change, traveled to Paris, where he met with representatives from 15 other major economies and the European Union. Together these nations contribute more than 80 percent of industrial CO2 emissions. European officials pressed the U.S. for a stronger emissions reduction program than the one outlined in current climate legislation. Europe’s own goals are tied to the rest of the world. Leaders there have committed by 2020 to a 20 percent reduction in their emissions, below 1990 levels. If negotiators produce a new agreement in Copenhagen, the E.U. has vowed to raise that target to 30 percent.
Stern told his counterparts that pollution reductions below targets in the current House of Representatives climate bill are politically unfeasible: “We are jumping as high as the political system will tolerate.”
Sino the Times: A more promising note rang from Beijing, where the government has issued draft car fuel economy standards tougher than those President Barack Obama announced last week, according to the New York Times. Chinese cars currently average about 35.8 miles per gallon and would be required to reach 42.2 mpg in 2015 (Obama’s new standard is 35.5 mpg by 2016). Chinese officials have yet to address a loophole large enough to drive a Hummer through: Standards apply only to cars produced in China — not imports.
In Beijing, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi told Chinese leaders that the “climate crisis is game-changing for the U.S.-China relationship.” Pelosi visited Beijing days after the Chinese government issued its formal negotiating stance for Copenhagen, which asks major emitters to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels by 40 percent by 2020. It’s hard to come up with a precise analogy for how difficult such a target would be. But certainly Americans could meet it easily by, uh, eliminating all household and commercial refrigeration.
Fortunately, striking a deal might ultimately cost much less than our entire national store of popsicles, ice cream, and frozen vegetables. Reuters interviews Gao Guangsheng, a top official in the National Coordination Committee for Climate Change, who acknowledges flexibility in the Chinese position. “I think Copenhagen may not be the final negotiation. It may set policy intentions so that we can keep negotiating,” he said.
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who also went to China, put a finer point on current negotiations between the world’s two largest emitters: “Copenhagen will be defined by what the U.S. and China agree on in the next few weeks.”
Other nations admit little or no such sunlight between their formal and informal negotiating positions. India has said it will look to the developed world for definitive leadership before considering a rigorous climate policy. ClimateWire explores the task facing climate advocates in India tilting at this particular windmill. “The Indian government’s agenda will not change until Indians want it to change,” Malini Mehra, the founder of the Indian nonprofit Centre for Social Markets told U.N. Foundation audience in Washington, DC.
Climate glasnost?: Even intransigent national positions on climate change can change abruptly and dramatically, as they did after the 2008 U.S. election. They can also do so without warning.
Russia surprised the climate world by finally acknowledging the potentially catastrophic threats of manmade warming, Nature reports. The magnitude of this change might not be immediately apparent. Imagine that Senator James Inhofe (R-Ok.) jettisoned his longstanding ridicule of basic science and climate policy, and adopted a position as rigorous as that of Rep. Henry Waxman, the powerful House committee chairman and lead author of that chamber’s current climate bill. That’s what happened when the natural resources minister briefed the Russian Cabinet in April. Officials calculated that the economy already takes nearly a $2 billion hit every year, because of climate-related flooding, droughts, and storms.
This thaw in climate politics amounts to a major political shift in Russian attitudes. And its intended result is to prevent actual thaw that would amount to a climate shift in Russian latitudes. Edward Schuur of the University of Florida and colleagues write in Nature that warmer temperatures unleash soil carbon stored for many thousands of years in permafrost. Over the next few decades, carbon release from tundra could “overwhelm” the amount that plants use to grow, creating another accelerator for warming.
“If it isn’t boring, it isn’t green“: Stern and Pelosi are not the U.S.’s only world travelers this week. Some 500 business leaders convened in the state of Denmark itself, calling on nations to halve their greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, a target much lower than the 80 percent or so advocated by Obama and congressional allies.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu told a London audience that whitewashing the world’s roofs would reflect enough solar energy back into space to match emissions reductions from taking 11 million cars off the road. This is worth keeping in mind in coming weeks and months as Congress considers climate legislation (Legislators have the week off for Memorial Day). Little things, aggregated globally, mean a lot.
“Cap and trade” or no “cap and trade,” the White House and Capitol are unlikely to ever change how they address global warming. That’s because both buildings reflect about 240 watts per square meter of solar energy right back up into the sky. (It’s the same principle behind parental encouragement to wear light shirts on sunny summer days. White and light colors reflect energy; black and dark colors absorb it.)
That’s just one approach. These buildings’ whiteness comes from heavy, hydrocarbon paints, which given the size of the buildings probably store several tons of carbon. The buildings themselves keep many tons of carbon out of the atmosphere. The Capitol Rotunda alone, made of Triassic and Cretaceous period sandstone, keeps carbon locked away in rock.
Climate Post is, of course, kidding in pointing out these relatively paltry stores of carbon. But maybe as elected officials and policymakers consider paths forward, they’ll take a moment to meditate on or marvel at the bigger picture — the much bigger picture — of the history they are making (either way), the common U.S. history that led them to this episode, its role in the community of nations, and the community of nations’ current, consequential role in the history of the Earth’s climate and life. How “cool” is that?
The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.