Grist's coverage of Copenhagen climate talks

If we were all in the Bella Center I’d start this post with something like, “The buzz in the hall today at COP 15 in Copenhagen was a leaked UN document confirming the worst fears of …”  But we’re not in the hall.  Most of us were locked outside today.  So I’ll settle for:

The idle chatter in the Copenhagen pubs this evening was the news that a leaked UN document demonstrates that we’re on the verge of an agreement locking in 3 degrees C.  This headline comes to us from The Guardian:

Leaked UN report shows cuts offered at Copenhagen would lead to 3C rise.

Unfortunately, the reactions to this headline in the pubs, on the climate lists, and in the media who have picked up this sucker of a story demonstrates how knee jerk our community has become, and frankly, how hungry we are for bad news.

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Sign Up for More News from GristThe document in question unearthed by The Guardian is not an analysis of “cuts offered at Copenhagen.”  It is an analysis of cuts offered prior to Copenhagen by several Annex I and non-Annex I countries in most cases regardless of the outcome in Copenhagen.  It models out what most major economies would achieve in emissions reductions in the future if they did what they say they will do today and only that, stopping and sitting on their haunches in quiet complacency.  What is analyzed here are not treaty commitments in the Kyoto or LCA tracks, or even in some interim political agreement.  They’re what everyone will do anyway which we can build upon with an agreement.

The first line of this catch of a document, which Kevin Grandia says, “may be a key document we all look back on in 30 years and say: ‘I told you so.’” reads: “This note provides an assessment of pledges made by Annex I parties, and voluntary actions and policy goals announced by a number of non-Annex I Parties in the lead-up to the COP to the UNFCCC held in Copenhagen.” In other words it is an assessment of the commitments currently in place and pending by parties prior to Copenhagen, some of which may be contingent on a treaty but most of which are not.  This is not an assessment of targets in provisional treaty language currently being discussed in the Bella Center (which I may never step foot in again) or commitments that were made contingent on the existence of a new treaty.

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In the story in The Guardian Joss Garman from Greenpeace claims that in this document, “The UN is admitting in private that the pledges made by world leaders would lead to a 3C rise in temperatures.”  In fact, this document is admission of nothing of the sort.  The vast majority of what is modeled in this document is not a “pledge” in exchange for a treaty, it is a unilateral pledge to decrease emissions for reasons that are common but differentiated for each party.  Show me, for example, in Waxman-Markey where it says, “this bill will only be enacted if the UN creates a post-Kyoto treaty framework.”  You can’t because it doesn’t exist. Show me something in China’s announced auto efficiency standards, forestry proposals, or their 2010 energy intensity target which says “these polices will only be enacted if the UN creates a post-Kyoto treaty framework.”  You can’t because it doesn’t exist.

The reason why such language doesn’t exist is easy enough to figure out:  Parties engaged in this process are decreasing their emissions for reasons other than satisfying the structure of a new treaty.  They are doing it to create new clean energy jobs, achieve energy security, clean up their environments, and retool themselves for a global economy where emissions are going to matter. The key is to write a treaty that takes existing country commitments and strengthens them past 2020 to 2050 to hit the targets that have been agreed to in other meetings such as last July’s Major Economies Forum and the G8. We’ll get one stop along the way in Copenhagen, I think, and finish the job in 2010.

Also, there is nothing exclusive about this Guardian story.  Bill McKibben says:  “In one sense this is no secret – we’ve been saying it for months.”  Unfortunately in every sense it is no secret because the secret analysis in this story has been publicly available for months and duplicated by several firms.

This analysis of current country commitments is the same as the findings of a number of other organizations that were bundled together last week into a joint press release issued by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change, UNEP, Ecofys, Climate Analytics, Sustainability Institute, the European Climate Foundation, and ClimateWorks.  I’m not surprised though that this analysis was brought out as a new revelation by this crew.  Guardian reporters have proven themselves suckers time and time again on the international climate story by pushing bad analysis as a scoop.

And frankly, I read the assessment of where we are with current commitments as good news not bad.  We’ve done an analysis of publicly available Project Catalyst numbers which conclude the same thing as this “secret” document.  We release it on Tuesday in a not so secret press conference.  But rather than calling foul we’ve argued for the very compelling other side of this.  When you add up everything that the 17 largest economies have on the table, not for a treaty mind you, but awaiting domestic action that could happen regardless of a treaty such as the US legislation, then we are 5 gigatons away from commitments that should get us on a 450ppm stabilization path by 2020, essentially 65% of the way there.  Given that the world has managed to get on a potential track in that direction with the world’s largest historical emitter pretending nothing was happening in the mean time and, only trying to catch up recently, isn’t bad at all.

That’s why we need an ambitious treaty.  To lock in those reductions and build language that can either get us those 5 gigatons by 2020 for things that aren’t counted in analysis like this (such as the forestry set-aside in Waxman-Markey, and the pledge to eliminate subsidies for fossil fuels from the G20 last September) or get them later for more money.  The fact that we’re potentially 65% of the way there without an agreement is reason to push forward, not back away, and improve on the ambition parties have expressed prior to a finalized word in any new climate agreement.

I think that we’re on the verge of an agreement in Copenhagen.  We’ll know a lot more in less than few hours.  Not everyone will like where that agreement is headed.  It won’t set out 350ppm as the presumed goal but will focus on a 450ppm stabilization path to 2 degrees C which many will find fault with.  But with the right scientific markers – limiting temperature rise to 2C or better – it can be improved once it is locked in place.  Why not keep the arguments to the things we have good cause to struggle over – 350 vs. 450, greenhouse development rights, etc. – rather than creating our own version of “Climate Gate” around this document.  To jettison the chance to get a treaty started now by imagining that current commitments exhaust the capacity of a new treaty would be sheer folly.  And if you think that the point of this process is simply to give a global stamp of approval on Waxman-Markey, and China and India’s current energy intensity targets, then you have no appreciation for what is being attempted here.

With so many of my friends pushing this story as a real find maybe locking us out of the Bella Center wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

This post was created for, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

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