US in Cancun: Weak, Non-Binding and Vague

by Kyle Ash

December 8, 2010

During today’s negotiations, the high level segment began. This is when the highest ranking government officials in town should, fingers crossed, provide clarity on their countries’ positions. Many countries have prime ministers or presidents here. In other cases Secretaries of Energy or the Environment will be speaking. The low level of importance the United States places on these negotiations is clear, as they will have no Cabinet Secretary speaking. Rather, Todd Stern, the chief negotiator, will be presenting. We’ve been listening to him avoid providing clarity on the US position for several days now. We’re still waiting to hear how the US will meet it’s pollution reduction target, if it will ever strengthen its target to meet the demands of climate science, and if they will tell us the US share of the $100 billion pledged by wealthy countries to help developing countries deal with the problem.

Yesterday, the US Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, was in Cancun briefly to lecture on the evidence for human-caused climate change. His presentation was interesting academically – it ranged from discussing rates of decay in carbon isotopes to technophilic raving about new enzymes producing biofuels – but there is little doubt that this administration accepts the science of the problem. Our concerns are that the administration does not accept the science of how to solve global warming, given the lack of urgency reflected in its weak commitments. Even his tone when discussing the need for policy seems to confirm foot dragging. Unfortunately, Secretary Chu didn’t stay for questions. He disappointed a room full of participants that was so jampacked people had been turned away. A lot of people want clarity. For instance, why is the administration investing so much money in figuring out how pump coal pollution underground, when it could be getting more bang for taxpayer’s bucks by helping grow wind farms and solar generation?

It is clear that the dead cap and trade legislation still hovers in the room. The US has the same positions on issues like subnational offsets (letting US polluters skirt their responsibilities to reduce pollution by buying bits of foreign forest), even though the logic supporting the offsets is withering away. They argue that the best way to reduce deforestation is to get wealthy US polluters to pay for subnational offsets. However, this position is seriously undermined by two developments in the past year. First, of the three country’s forests that we rely on to regulate climate, two (Indonesia and Brazil) have already been reducing deforestation rates much faster than anyone had predicted. Indonesia may soon put a moratorium on cutting forests, and Brazil is likely to vote any day on even stronger forest policy. These developments show that we don’t need subnational offsets to reduce deforestation. Second, there is strong evidence that the subnational offsets actually undermine efforts to reduce emissions. Evidence from China shows that the offsets mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol, called the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), has inadvertently but assuredly created incentives for higher production of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are up to 20,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide as greenhouse gases. In brief, producers of HFCs saw they would get credit per unit reduced in the future, so it made sense to produce as much as possible to maximize the amount they would one day reduce. CDM provided a textbook case of moral hazard.

There are a lot of US positions in the climate talks that appear divorced from facts and logic. And the list is growing. Despite that they had no problem with discussing a cap on GHG pollution at home, we’re hearing that the United States is objecting to using the word ‘cap’ in the negotiating texts. Actually, this is to be expected if you were in the loop as the US began to make clear they also do not want mention of an ‘aggregate target’ – the US weak target is the main reason why summing up all country’s commitments to reduce emissions shows we’re headed for global disaster. The United Nations Environment Program recent report shows a 40% gap between the 2 degree goal of the Copenhagen Accord and all country’s pledges to reduce pollution. There were plenty of unknowns before this conference began, but the US administration is now adding contradiction to statements that were formally just vague. They are objecting to use of the word ‘target’ and ‘commitment’ now too, words that were in the Copenhagen Accord, which Todd Stern called a ‘grand bargain’ in a University of Michigan speech and foundation for moving forward in the climate talks.

The only explanation I can come up with for the US behavior is that they want to stall. The question is why, and to what end. Is there anything promising about US behavior in Cancun? They’ve shown some flexibility on technical issues relating to how GHG emissions will be tracked. But we have a long way to go. Right now it still looks like the US positions are determined not by science, not by economics, but by industry.

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.

We Need Your Voice. Join Us!

Want to learn more about tax-deductible giving, donating stock and estate planning?

Visit Greenpeace Fund, a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) charitable entity created to increase public awareness and understanding of environmental issues through research, the media and educational programs.