Accounting in Doha, Obama Plays Chicken with Climate

by Kyle Ash

December 1, 2012

While US President Barack Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, activists demonstrated on the streets of Oslo. Activists held signs that read "Obama: Our Climate. Your decision." 12/10/2009 Christian slund / Greenpeace

After President Obama’s brief outburst on climate post-Sandy, we’ve heard hardly a peep. It’s as if he is hoping for just enough climate impacts to neutralize the fossil fuel industry that beckons his frequent pandering. His political will is playing a game of chicken with climate tipping points.

With little expectation that President Obama will invest political capital during the Doha climate talks, we search for issues where the US need not invest any real effort to be proactive. One is pushing the removal of fossil fuel subsidies, since the US has pushed this in the G20 albeit with virtually no progress. Another should be an agreement on how countries account for their climate pollution reduction efforts. The US frequently points out that its domestic rules are awesome. And the US confessed goal has been to turn the United National Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) into a forum primarily for reporting and transparency, with no emphasis on a global treaty obliging national policy. I call this a global polluters anonymous meeting.

The United States yesterday nevertheless received a ‘fossil award‘ for obstructing negotiations on common accounting rules. Thwarting discussion of common accounting whittles away remnant perception that the US wants anything of substance out of the UNFCCC. Right now, the majority of countries serious about global warming we are hearing view the US role in the climate talks as an overall negative influence.

In fact, the US greenhouse gas (GHG) reporting regime is relatively robust. The Obama administration, to its credit, also admits admits some shortcomings. One that gets little attention is the use of old data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to calculate greenhouse gas potency. The US should of course start using the most recent IPCC data, which may even be conservative since it doesn’t account for certain issues like release of GHGs from underneath a melting Arctic. The greatest weakness of GHG reporting by the US may be how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calculates the global warming potential of GHGs compared with carbon dioxide (CO2).

EPA calculates potency of methane compared with CO2, for example, spread out over a 100 years. Using a 100-year time horizon to calculate GWP is fine in a strict academic sense, but in a biological sense it is crazy. It’s like calculating how much I need to save for retirement each month based on a 500 year life-span. If I’m lucky, I’ll live 100 years, so I’d actually need to save 5 times more each month unless I want to retire into a cardboard box.

Humanity may have less than decade – if we’re lucky – to achieve already significant reductions in GHG emissions in order to avoid catalyzing runaway climate change. Unlike retirement savings, we no longer have the option to amortize pollution reduction efforts. The difference is about a factor of 5. Using the old IPCC data from 1995, methane is 21 times more powerful than CO2 over 100 years. The 2013/14 IPCC report is likely to show that over 20 years methane is 105 times more powerful than CO2. You can see how EPA reporting would change in the enclosed graph. Rising methane overcomes falling CO2.


The Deputy Special Envoy Jonathan Pershing, who was an IPCC scientist, should agree it is problematic to only use a 100 year-time for reporting on their GHGs. This cannot be the reason for US recalcitrance on common pollution accounting rules in the UNFCCC. Most if not all countries unfortunately also do the same.

There are at least two reasons the US may not view discussion of common accounting rules in its self interest. First, the rules would have to include how to track carbon markets. For example, how to track traded units of the ‘right’ to pollute carbon. Ideally, it would be compatible with the already existing European Trading System (ETS). In addition to California, it appears that the US may be left in the dust with national carbon trading systems being created by wealthy and developing countriesall over the world. Countries include Australia, South Korea, Japan, India, and China.

But precedent is not likely to be enough for the US. And recall the pockmarked Waxman-Markey climate bill that would have given more to carbon investors than it required of them. Even if the next climate legislation with a chance were effective, the United States probably wants to maintain as much flexibility as possible to domestically negotiate a national carbon trading system someday. This is a catch 22 really. The Obama administration should reflect on whether legislation is ever possible without the President investing political capital.

The second reason the US probably is not so interested in moving the discussion on climate pollution accounting rules is that its climate pollution target is abysmal. The US committed to reduce 17% of its pollution by 2020, which is inadequate but nominally not so far from the minimum 25-40% the IPCC says is necessary for developed countries. But the IPCC target is based on 1990 levels. Using a 1990 base year, President Obama committed to reduce only 3% of US climate pollution. If common accounting rules allowed the US to report progress using a 2005 base year, the science based requirement of 25-40% would have to be recalculated for that base year which means the US target should be 35-50% by 2020.

The point of common accounting rules is to allow the world to assess if collective targets are enough to avoid disastrous climate change, but they would also demonstrate comparability of efforts. If every country had to report its climate pollution over the same time period, intergovernmental inscription would shine an annoying light on more than just the scientific inadequacy of the US target. The easier it is to compare efforts of countries, the harder it is to ignore the political inadequacy of US commitment on climate.

Kyle Ash

By Kyle Ash

Kyle Ash formerly served as Greenpeace's Legislative Policy Expert, responsible for domestic and international climate change policy analysis and campaign strategy. He has been quoted in Politico, Greenwire, the New York Times, and CNN, and was one of the most frequently quoted sources during the Copenhagen Climate Conference.

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