From Top-Down to Bottom-Up: New Directions for Climate at Rio+20

In 2009, I published a book with Graciela Chichilnisky, Saving Kyoto (New Holland 2009), that argued passionately for preserving the economic and political architecture of the only international treaty on climate change the world has known – the Kyoto Protocol. The book was timely: the countdown to compliance with Kyoto’s mandated emissions targets had begun; the international community was gathering that year in Copenhagen to negotiate the next round of climate commitments; and there was hope that the Obama administration could usher the U.S. back to the negotiating table in earnest. More importantly from my perspective, however, was the growing realization that the window of opportunity for stabilizing the earth’s climate system was rapidly coming to a close. The urgency of the crisis demanded immediate, extensive emissions reductions. And I firmly believed that a coordinated international effort that mandated reductions from world’s largest emitters was the fairest and most efficient way to stave off climate disaster.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the famous Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and the signing of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), the international governance framework that eventually gave rise to the Kyoto Protocol. As the global community convenes again this week in Rio to establish goals and strategies for sustainable development for the next 20 years, its failures to arrest climate change over the last 20 years will be hard to deny. But it will also be hard to ignore the real energy, innovation, and progress around climate change that is emerging from the ground up all over the world. The examples are many, including Germany’s aggressive use of feed-in tariffs that is helping to drive down the costs of solar technology worldwide; the commitments of cities across the globe to redesigning their infrastructure, planning, and policies to dramatically slash emissions; and the emergence of regional emissions reduction schemes, such as California’s AB32 and the Northeast’s Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Even private industry is taking positive leaps forward toward embracing energy savings and preparing for future uncertainties around climate change and global energy prices Continue reading…


Spotlight Durban: What Can be Done to Break the Stalemate in Durban?

Another in a Triple Crisis and Real Climate Economics Blog series on the Durban Climate Change Conference.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the world is again conferring about what to do about climate change, and again deciding to do very little. If it wasn’t so serious, it would be funny. The satirical publication The Onion greeted the COP17 conference in Durban, South Africa by announcing the release of a new report showing that global warming may be irreversible if no action is taken to prevent it before 2006; in an example of fair and balanced reporting, they also interviewed a critic who put the point of no return as late as 2010.

The real debate in Durban seems less realistic than The Onion’s satire. Should the Kyoto Protocol, currently scheduled to expire next year, be extended or replaced by a better agreement to limit emissions? Will the promised $100 billion funding for climate adaptation – let alone the larger sums that will actually be needed – somehow materialize? Or should we just agree to keep talking?

While others are not blameless, the United States is the leader of the do-nothings, the country whose inaction ensures a global climate stalemate. As long as the world’s largest economy, with the largest cumulative emissions and the greatest resources to tackle the climate crisis, refuses to act, others are not likely to move forward on their own. Yet there is not a snowball’s chance in Texas that any significant climate policy will survive the current U.S. Congress. Continue reading…


Spotlight Durban: Climate Action on Multiple Scales

The U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP17) is taking place in Durban, South Africa. The Spotlight Durban series, a joint series by Real Climate Economics  and Triple Crisis, invites experts to comment on the negotiations and the prospects for real progress  addressing climate change in the months and years ahead.

From November 28th through December 9th, the world’s nations are meeting again to discuss solutions to the urgent threat of rising  greenhouse gas emissions, this time in Durban, South Africa. This meeting, the Seventeenth Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, has been much less widely anticipated than the meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark, two years ago. At that time, expectations were high, President Obama had just taken office, and for the first time ever literally dozens of heads of state were scheduled to attend a climate convention. Yet the result – a non-binding agreement called the “Copenhagen Accord” – was widely disappointing, and since then, the prospects for strengthening that agreement have only grown more remote. Indeed, even the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol (which the US did not ratify) is in serious doubt at this point.

One of the optimistic aspects of the Copenhagen Accord was the enshrinement of a commitment – of sorts – to trying to keep global temperature increase to less than two degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average (compared to a roughly 0.8ºC increase to date). Yet while within the mainstream scientific community this level is seen as anything but “safe”, the “realist” view of the negotiations is that even this level of ambition is nearly out of reach – a conclusion that is consistent with the recently released World Energy Outlook 2011, published by the International Energy Agency. Worse, it is plain to expert observers that the North-South conflict that has long been a primary obstacle to global cooperation is if anything growing worse, even as the traditional lines between developed and developing countries continue to blur. Given this reality, and the evident distraction of political elites in the US and Europe with domestic (or at least regional) economic problems, it is easy to argue that we might as well give up on the UNFCCC as a useful forum, and focus on “cultivating our gardens”, as it were, at local scales. Continue reading…


Spotlight Durban: An Island Nation’s Call For Gifts to the World

The U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP17) is taking place in Durban, South Africa. The Spotlight Durban series, a joint series by Real Climate Economics  and Triple Crisis , invites experts to comment on the negotiations and the prospects for real progress addressing climate change in the months and years ahead.

This post is written His Excellency Anote Tong, President of Kiribati.

Earlier this fall, I crossed the Pacific Ocean from the island nation of Kiribati, which I am privileged to serve as President, to visit the United States.

In the days just before the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, I saw and heard many references to the “resilience” of the American people. President Obama spoke of it, the covers of magazines displayed it. There is no doubt that Americans have found within them the capacity to absorb tremendous shocks, to adapt and heal from unimaginable disaster.

I listened as my American hosts spoke about your economic challenges. I understand that the hardship in your country is great. I heard of many people who are jobless, “underwater” on their home loans, and struggling to make ends meet. I know the deep insecurity that many of you feel.

These same ten years have brought another sort of disaster to my country, a constellation of low-lying, reef-fringed islands scattered across 1.3 million square miles of the South Pacific. On average, our islands are just two meters above sea level. Scientists anticipate sea level rise of one meter or more as a result of climate change within this century. You begin to see the catastrophe that Kiribati faces. Continue reading…


Spotlight Durban: Climate Change Gets Personal

The U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP17) is taking place in Durban, South Africa. The Spotlight Durban series, a joint series by Real Climate Economics  and Triple Crisis , invites experts to comment on the negotiations and the prospects for real progress addressing climate change in the months and years ahead.

It’s that time of year again.

This week marks the start of the 17th annual United Nations climate change conference, or Conference of Parties (COP). Held this year in Durban, South Africa, COP17 will bring together hundreds of official delegates along with thousands of demonstrators and other unofficial observers. It’s always possible that COP17 will reach an international agreement on a viable climate policy (17th time’s the charm!), but the complete lack of  consensus seems likely to derail negotiations.

Climate change impacts each nation differently, and each nation would have very different costs from lowering emissions to safe levels. This diversity of impacts complicates climate policy negotiations and makes it very challenging for rich and poor nations to find common ground. But the broad range of climate impacts expected around the world has another critical effect on negotiations, one that receives very little media coverage or scholarly analysis: there is an enormous range of likely climate impacts not just between countries, but within them.

Each country has just one official voice at COP17, so in effect a country’s entire population speaks in unison. But within each country, some people are net losers from climate change (damages to them are greater than their savings from not reducing emissions) while some are net winners (their savings are greater than the damages they suffer). More people will become net losers from climate change with each passing year, but today many people are saving more than they lose. Whose interests will be represented in Durban?

Most analysis of the costs and benefits of climate change look at net impacts for the entire world or, at best, for each of several world regions. The Climate Impacts Equity Lens (CIEL) is a new tool for looking instead at impacts on an individual level, showcasing diversity in vulnerability to climate change and in the expected cost of lowering emissions. (To learn more about CIEL go to www.sei-ciel.org.) Continue reading…


Lessons of the Montreal Protocol for Climate Policy

It is both remarkable and disheartening that the example of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer has not played a more prominent role in the climate policy debate. The Montreal Protocol has been extremely successful in eliminating almost all production and consumption of ozone-depleting substances (ODSs); it has achieved universal participation by the nations of the world; and it has demonstrated the possibility of cooperation in funding and technology transfer between the rich and poor nations to achieve a global environmental objective. The Montreal Protocol was negotiated and implemented as a precautionary measure, before depletion of the ozone layer had reached crisis proportions. What lessons does Montreal offer for climate policy?  Continue reading…