Grist's coverage of Copenhagen climate talks

Co-written by Rebecca Lefton, a Researcher for Progressive Media, and Daniel J. Weiss, a Senior Fellow and Director Climate Strategy at the Center for American Progress.

Myth #1: Copenhagen is already a failure. Instead of a binding agreement we’ll end up with a political deal that gets us nowhere.

Reality: We are on schedule at Copenhagen to complete the first of a two-step negotiating process designed to finish a new international agreement well in advance of the end of the first commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol in 2012.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The meeting in Copenhagen was always intended to be part of a process for structuring an international agreement, not the end of it. The same was true of the Kyoto Protocol — now currently the only international agreement on climate change — which took four years to negotiate and seven years to enter into force. In contrast the timetable for completion of a legally binding agreement out of the Copenhagen meeting is on a much faster track. The expectation that Copenhagen would produce a final agreement, however, was in part the work of a previous American administration.

The original deadline to finish a new climate agreement in Copenhagen was set in 2007 as part of the United Nations’ “Bali Action Plan.” This two-year countdown to come up with a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol was agreed to by the Bush administration. Given that the success of any new agreement is absolutely dependent on U.S. participation, the Bush administration essentially sealed the fate of any real possibility for a final agreement to be produced in two years in time for Copenhagen when they proceeded to do nothing to advance a new U.N. treaty over the following year even as they represented the United States in the 2008 U.N. climate conference in Poland after Barack Obama had been elected president.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Success at Copenhagen has been set by the conference host, Danish Prime Minister Lars Rasmussen, who proposed a two-step proposal for getting the beginning of an agreement out of Copenhagen that President Obama supports. Step one includes using the current meeting to create the broad outlines for interim architecture for a climate treaty, and setting provisional carbon pollution reduction targets and ambitions for a legally binding agreement. Step two includes completing the details and finalizing this agreement in 2010.

It’s not certain what the exact deadline will be for completing the second step of the Danish proposal, but the deadline could come as early as this summer when an interim meeting could be called between now and the next U.N. climate summit in December 2010 in Mexico City. This was done once before in the history of the U.N. climate meetings, so is not unprecedented. While Rasmussen’s proposal has come under attack in the opening days of the Copenhagen meeting it is still very much alive.

Whatever the result of Copenhagen, it is important to keep in mind that the world has effectively had less than a year to negotiate a much more ambitious treaty than the Kyoto Protocol. Given the absence of the United States as a constructive participant in these negotiations for the last eight years we’ve only been seriously working on a new international climate deal since the inauguration of President Barack Obama last January. The fact that we are on the verge of adopting a full interim agreement intended to be, in President Obama’s words, “immediately operational,” is a massive accomplishment in the face of overwhelming odds against any success.

Myth #2: The United States is doing little to stop climate pollution and has fallen out of step with the emissions reductions targets of other developed countries.

Reality: The administration has endorsed the same 2050 reduction targets as our allies and the present proposals for 2020 emissions reductions in the American Clean Energy and Security Act and the Boxer-Kerry Senate billin conjunction with complementary measureswill meet the ambitions of other developed countries.

President Obama is going to Copenhagen with a promise to agree to 2020 emissions cuts “in the range of” 17 percent below 2005 levels. This number is not coincidentally the same as the proposed 2020 commitment for an economy-wide reduction proposed in ACES and lower than the 20 percent reduction proposed in the current Senate legislation. It is possible that over the course of the next year the president and Congress will agree on a higher figure for 2020 reductions than these. The important thing to keep in mind is this commitment by the president because it is the first time that the United States has proposed its own reduction targets in international climate negotiations with support from the U.S. Congress.

Many of our allies find Obama’s number disappointing against their promises to reduce emissions 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Falling so far short of the European Union’s 2020 commitment may also have the unfortunate consequence of failing to trigger the E.U.’s commitment to increase their emissions reductions from 20 to 30 percent below 1990 levels if the United States makes a comparable effort.

But several organizations have looked at the numbers in the pending U.S. legislation and concluded that even greater emissions reductions are possible in it than are represented in the economy-wide caps. For example, a recent study by the World Resources Institute calculates that ACES could achieve emission reductions of 23 percent below 1990 levels if all complementary measures are taken into account, such as the set-aside in the legislation for direct assistance to avoided deforestation initiatives in developing countries and the more restricted energy efficiency goals for limited sectors of the economy.

Sign Up for More News from Grist

Working with Project Catalyst, the Center for American Progress has verified some of this analysis and will release preliminary numbers in a report next week that will demonstrate that total emissions reductions from existing and pending U.S. policies will achieve reductions of at least 12 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. We’ve termed this methodology for counting all complementary measures that a party proposes — not just the economy-wide policies preferred for developed countries in the Kyoto Protocol — a “carbon cap equivalent.” Some of the alternative architecture for a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol proposed by Australia and South Korea would allow for counting cap equivalents in a parties’ commitment to their binding carbon reductions.

Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that emission reductions by 2020 are important in these negotiations not as an end in themselves but as a marker along the way to demonstrate that a country can reach their 2050 goals. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, argues that we can only meet the goal of limiting an increase in temperatures from climate change by 2 degrees C if we cut global emissions by half by 2050.

The IPCC recommends that developed countries cut emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 to limit the increase in temperature to tolerable levels. The Obama administration and the other countries of the G8 formally accepted this goal at their meeting in Italy in July. In the announcement that the administration would start their reductions with a 17 percent cut below 2005 levels by 2020 they also stipulated an expected pathway under the pending legislation of reductions of 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 and 42 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, on the mark to hit the 2050 goal that all of our allies agree upon.

Myth # 3: It’s impossible for the world to meet the IPCC’s targets for stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions to prevent a dangerous rise in temperature.

Reality: We are 65 percent of the way there already.

When it comes to the issue of carbon mitigation — or measures to reduce carbon pollution — we don’t need all countries of the world to reduce their emissions equally or at all. Two dozen countries account for 85 percent of global emissions, and the United States and China produce nearly half of the global emissions from burning carbon dioxide. Reductions in carbon pollution sufficient to put us on a pathway necessary to hold our temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels only requires the cooperation of most of the developed countries of the world and the six major developing emitters: China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, and South Africa.

Last spring, President Obama restarted the Major Economies Forum, or MEF, an initiative from the waning days of the Bush administration that was organized in part around this principle. The MEF has brought together the 16 largest polluting countries in the world, and the European Union as a single party, to advance the prospects of a new international climate agreement. This smaller forum allows the largest emitters to negotiate bilateral and multilateral agreements on cooperation on the development of clean-energy technology and verification of emission reductions, which would be less achievable in the context of the U.N. process with 192 nations.

The aforementioned report in progress from CAP will highlight modeling from Project Catalyst of the pollution reduction policies implemented or proposed by the 17 MEF parties. In the best-case scenario those proposals will provide 65 percent of the necessary reductions needed by 2020 to put the world on the 2 degree Celsius pathway to safety. While we cannot stop there, the outcome of this research should give us some confidence that even this far in advance of finishing a final treaty that should scale up the ambition for emission reductions by all parties we are aimed at the right target.

Myth #4: The United States should not have to act because China and India are not doing anything.

Reality: Both China and India are now moving forward with ambitious plans for emissions reductions and low-carbon development.

Both China and India were pursuing ambitious clean-energy development plans even before their recent slate of announcements committing to carbon pollution reductions.

China will succeed in reducing energy intensity — energy consumption per unit of gross domestic product — by 20 percent from 2005 levels by 2010. Their aim is to generate 10 percent of their electricity from renewable energy sources by 2010 and 15 percent by 2020. China’s fuel economy standard for passenger cars is equivalent to 36.7 miles per gallon, and China is reportedly considering raising this to 42.2 mpg. The U.S. standard remained at 27.5 mpg for 20 years until President Obama recently announced a new standard in May of 35.5 mpg by 2016.

India recently announced that it will quantify greenhouse gas emissions and take actions to reduce emissions through deployment of renewable energy and energy efficiency. India had previously announced the most ambitious solar energy goal in the world and is moving forward with a plan to radically improve home appliance efficiency.

More significantly, on Thanksgiving Day, China announced a target of reducing carbon emissions per unit of GDP by 40 to 45 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. India followed suit shortly thereafter with a carbon intensity reduction target of 20 to 25 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. This is the first specific carbon pollution reduction proposal by either country.

While some have been critical of the real impact of these policies, modeling by Project Catalyst and the Center for American Progress estimates that China and India’s plans will reduce their emissions 13 percent and 19 percent respectively below a scenario where they would have done nothing — “business as usual” or BAU — by 2020 and contributed significantly to the overall emissions reductions needed globally to put us on a secure pathway to holding temperature increases to a sustainable level.

It is also false that these countries will never agree to caps in their emissions. Chinese government officials have already made explicit statements that China will peak its emissions growth at some future date. South Korea and Mexico have also indicated recently unilateral plans to consider future caps if a good climate treaty is put in place.

Myth #5: China, India, and other developing countries will not commit to an international agreement on climate change.

Reality: Developing countries have publically stated that they will sign a new climate agreement as long as it is equitable and does not inhibit their ability to tackle lingering domestic poverty.

All the major emitters in the developing world — China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, and South Africa — have ratified the Kyoto Protocol, which was intended as the beginning of a process that will eventually bring developing countries into the fold as full partners in the effort to stop global carbon pollution. All of these countries are also part of other diplomatic processes that will help form the basis of an international agreement, such as the MEF. And all of these countries have explicitly acknowledged through the MEF process “the scientific view that the increase in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels ought not to exceed 2 degrees C.”

Additionally, the United States has moved forward with an array of bilateral agreements with most of these countries that would increase their ability to meet these goals by increasing their capacities in deployment of clean-energy technologies. For example, the U.S. Department of Energy and China formed a partnership in June to improve building efficiency and create sustainable communities that are powered with renewable sources. The two countries then signed a Memorandum of Understanding in July agreeing to engage in policy dialogue on climate change, and to cooperate on capacity building, research, development, and deployment of low-carbon technology.

That said, just prior to the start of the Copenhagen meeting representatives from China, India, Brazil, and South Africa met to reiterate a tough negotiating position denying any flexibility in achieving a constructive solution in Copenhagen. However, it is important to remember that this is most likely a resetting of their initial negotiating position to make sure they get what they want out of the meeting and to counterbalance the cooperative signals they have been sending through these bilateral agreements with the United States and other partners in the developed world. We should distinguish between the caustic rhetorical strategies that are commonplace in these negotiations and what parties are actually agreeing to do. The bilateral agreements that these countries have signed on to prior to Copenhagen is a better indication of what they are willing to do.

Myth #6: Emissions reductions in developing countries cannot be accounted for or verified.

Reality: Measuring, reporting, and verifying emissions reductions is an issue for both developed and developing countries.

Developing countries are eager to improve their capacity for measurement, reporting, and verification. It is in their interest to measure the effectiveness of the policies they are already putting in place as this is the only framework under which developed countries will ever provide assistance for clean economic development in exchange for such reductions.

For instance, although it continues to be a work in progress, China has developed a fairly detailed range of measurement, reporting, and verification mechanisms for their major energy and environmental policies. China’s statistics laws have been tightened to improve data quality and enhance accountability. Even more notably, at the China-U.S. summit in Beijing last month the two parties agreed to cooperate on the establishment of a comprehensive carbon inventory in China to match the one that President Obama announced the United States would commit to in his opening address at the climate leaders summit last September at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City. China’s commitments to emission reductions would be meaningless without such an inventory and any future system of compliance for reductions is absolutely dependent on such an inventory in order to establish a baseline starting point and measure progress.

China’s agreement to U.S. assistance and access to this inventory is the better indication of their future agreement to a rigorous regime of verification. India’s acceptance of U.S. assistance in the presidential summit held at the end of last month in Washington, D.C. to improve its own environmental protection agency shows a similar inclination.

Myth #7: Joining an international agreement will leave the United States at a competitive disadvantage and jobs will go overseas.

Reality: Passing domestic climate legislation and joining an international agreement on climate change is the only way to keep America competitive in the emerging clean technology economy.

Clean-energy investments prompted by the House of Representatives in ACES will generate around 1.7 million jobs. ACES includes provisions to assist energy-intensive, trade-sensitive industries who may be in competition with counterparts in nations without emission reduction regulations. Steel, glass, cement, and other energy-intensive industries would initially receive pollution allowances that they can use or sell to keep them competitive with foreign firms. A Pew Center on Global Climate Change study found that these provisions will ensure that American industries would experience less than a 1 percent decline in overall production as a result of a cap on emissions.

An international agreement will catalyze public and private actors to capitalize on emerging clean-energy investment opportunities abroad. A recent report by the China Greentech Initiative found that China has enormous potential for a mass market in green technologies, reaching up to $1 trillion a year. U.S. companies are already hungry for investment opportunities in China, recognizing a growing desire among the Chinese to reduce environmental threats and be a leader in clean energy technology. Duke Energy signed an agreement in August with Huaneng, one of the biggest Chinese utilities, to cooperate on renewable energy and carbon capture and storage. And American company First Solar signed a deal with Chinese government officials in September to build the largest photovoltaic plant in the world-producing enough solar electricity to power 3 million Chinese homes.

The cap-and-trade provisions in ACES, and in the companion Senate bill currently being considered, will also improve our ability to join the emerging global clean technology economy. As an example of what the United States can do, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI — the United States’ first regional cap-and-trade program established by the Northeastern states — had its sixth auction of carbon dioxide allowances this past week as part of their ramp up to a full carbon trading system for the electricity producing sector. The auction of carbon pollution allowances generated more than $60 million, increasing the total from RGGI auctions to date $494.4 million. Successful auctions have yielded a steady revenue stream for states to invest in programs that reduce emissions, save consumers money, and create jobs.

Naysayers and skeptics argue that the steps necessary to bring the United States into compliance with a new international climate treaty will hurt our economy. The truth is that the economy will suffer if we do not capture these energy opportunities.

Spread the news on what the føck is going on in Copenhagen with friends via email, Facebook, Twitter, or smoke signals.