Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Hopenhagen or Nopenhagen: fresh update and links

Today, we have another update from Copenhagen, so we'll post a day early.  Here's a spoiler: the news is not good.  Still, it's important that we understand the issues involved, because they are not going to go away on their own. Speaking of issues, if you are confused about "emission intensity" or "carbon intensity", we explain them simply here. For the Green Light Dhaba's introduction to the Copenhagen talks, including our five decade forecast, go here.  For a very good response to a recent piece in the Times of India, check out "Weather ain't the same as climate, Mr. Aiyar." by Suvrat Kher.

If you are reading from outside of India, and wonder how it is possible that we have such low per capita emissions, you might want to check out: "The World is Not Fair and the GDP is Stupid: economics for 9 year olds"; and our photo essays on pedal power and animal power.

Here's another plug for Beyond Copenhagen ("A collective action against climate change from India"); it has interesting photos and blog posts from Copenhagen. And of course, the Indian Youth Climate Network have all kinds of things going on both on the ground in Delhi and on line

Today we are running another email update from Mr. Legal Adviser,  someone who wants to be identified only as "a Legal Adviser to an International Environmental Group."  In this update, he tells us that he is an American, and he asks people to call the President of the United States and leave a comment.  Since Airtel lets me call for US and Canada for just a few rupees a minute, I tried.  

Unfortunately, the White House does not have up-to-date answering machine technology and they only take comments between 9am and 5pm, US, EST.  (Mr. President, austerity is all well and good, but I think you can afford voice mail!) That means you have to call between 7:30 pm and 3:30 am IST.  Why not try it?  Pretend you work in a call center--or maybe you do!  Just add a + to the number in the update below!  Who knows what the White House will do with a load of calls from India saying, "get tough on pollution Mr. Obama! And pay your carbon debt!"  Most likely, nothing.  Still it might be fun.  Anyway, thanks again, Mr. Legal Adviser for another interesting update and analysis.

As I write this, we are down to three days here at the Copenhagen climate talks. And I am afraid to say that there is almost no reason to be encouraged. Everybody has cards to put on the table but no one is playing.

Actually, not everybody has cards. The Least Developed Countries, the poorest of the poor, and the Association of Small Island States, also mostly poor, have little to offer beyond their presence. Their emissions are so small they can offer little in the way of mitigation. They come asking for help to adapt as weather patterns change, storms grow and seas rise. They are being offered a tiny fraction of what economists say they will need. The only card they have to play is to pack up and leave, refusing to sign on to a national suicide pact. Their presence here is now on a hair trigger.

To gain some influence in the talks, they are aligned with a large group of developing countries that goes by the name of the G77. Other than the poorest countries, this group includes what have become known as the BASIC countries. Those letters (kind of) stand for the names of the biggest of the emerging economies: Brazil, South Africa, India and China. These countries have emissions profiles that are distinctive for a combination of four factors. They represent a significant portion of current global emissions and a large portion of future emissions growth, but they do not represent a significant proportion of historic emissions and their per capita emissions levels are far below the developed world. Each of these countries has made significant pledges to slow the growth of their emissions, but refuse to set absolute limits on growth for economies that includes hundreds of millions of people that still live below income levels of two dollars per day.

Distinctive among this group is China, now the world’s largest emitter, right behind the U.S. China is the largest emitter and greatest source of emissions growth, but relatively small in terms of historic emissions and per capita emissions. Chinese emissions are still one-quarter of the U.S per person. The U.S. has made China the prime target of these talks. China has proposed to reduce its emissions intensity – the amount of carbon emitted per unit of economic activity -- by 40-45% by 2020. That is a significant contribution. If implemented and assuming the U.S. gets one of the bills now before Congress passed and implemented, China will still have emissions less than half per U.S. person in 2020. But the U.S. is pushing measurement, reporting and verification of that promise. China is resisting throwing its economy open to outside review. I hope China will move on this issue, but it is certain they will not move before others, especially the U.S. puts more on the table.

There is one last group of G77 countries. They are largely oil producers led by Saudi Arabia. For the most part they are here to stop anything from happening to the oil industry. They are not afraid to take undisguised action to slow or stop the process. In the end though, they don’t have enough power alone to sink these talks.

First among developed countries is the European Union. The EU is perhaps the most transparent group here. But their pledge of 20% reduction from 1990 levels is not what it seems. The EU moves as a bloc of countries and includes Eastern European countries that had high post-Soviet emissions in 1990. Many of those countries are significantly below those levels now, allowing other EU countries higher emissions while still claiming overall reductions. But the EU is likely to move to a 30% reduction if other developing countries move further.

Of course the meaning of 30% depends on how you count. The biggest factor on counting is international offsets. Those currently come in the form of financing projects in other countries for the benefit of emission reduction credits at home. A new deal could significantly expand these offsets while also including a bunch of new credits from forestry projects in developing countries. My biggest worry for the last month has been that some kind of weak forest deal will get done here and be sold to the public as saving the forest to save the climate. So far what is on the table on forests is largely a greenwash for covering up general inaction.

After the EU comes a group of developed countries called the Umbrella Group, including Japan, Russia, Canada, Australia. These countries are a mixed bag. Canada is horrible and claims it is horrible because the U.S. is horrible. Russia is sitting on a load of hot air. That is the term for the emissions credits based on those higher 1990 levels that I talked about earlier. Russia can claim to reduce emissions about 40% below 1990 levels while nonetheless actually increasing emissions and selling that hot air to polluting countries. Japan under its new government might have a reasonable plan on the table but has been obstructive in negotiations. Australia embraces the general lack of ambition.

So it is clear, given this lack of action on the part of the rich countries that caused the climate problem in the first place, why developing countries say they need to see the rich countries move before they do.

Which brings me to the U.S. We are now proposing to reduce emissions a miserable 3-4% below 1990 levels. We have put no solid financing numbers on the table to help developing countries mitigate their emissions or adapt to the climate problem we helped create. We generally advocate for the biggest loopholes in the rules. Sometimes we even block proposals that everyone except OPEC supports. And we seem to be saying that we won’t pledge anything more, especially without China doing more. It is embarrassing to be an American at talks like these. I am incapable of defending my country’s actions.

What is especially frustrating is that about half of the biggest, richest environmental groups from the U.S. continue to back the U.S. negotiating position. They are like a broken record that argues that we can’t take strong action in Copenhagen because then the Senate will be scared off from passing a climate bill in the U.S. Arrgh! People used to say we needed a strong bill in the Senate to get a strong deal in Copenhagen. Now we are hearing we need a weak agreement in Copenhagen to get any bill in the Senate at all.

So it is easy to see why I say there is almost no reason to be encouraged. Almost no reason. Let me point out the cracks of light. First, other than the elites that run the show here, the world largely supports strong action on an international climate deal. The hundred thousand or so in the streets here on Saturday were just one example. Next the people I work with everyday are tireless, fierce and refuse to take no for an answer. It is almost impossible of believe that this level of dedication can fail. And finally, a solution lies in the hands of one man who can change everything.

President Obama could come here and unlock a deal that is fair, ambitious and legally binding. He could instruct negotiators to stop creating loopholes and blocking honest progress. He could commit to go beyond the weak levels proposed in the current bills before Congress. He could pledge to raise funds to help the world’s most vulnerable adapt to a problem that was created by our American lifestyles of consumption. He could sign up to a deal that has real consequences for the failure to meet commitments.

The amount of goodwill that would be unlocked in the world from the result of such action would be like a flood. So many people are waiting for leadership. There is a vast ocean of positive action held back by a dam of fear and self-interest. The kind of deal the world needs is all on paper right now in brackets; it simply needs to be released from those brackets, to be agreed. The leaders of 110 countries are arriving already. Everybody necessary to tackle this greatest of all problems head on will be in the same city on the same day with the same purpose. This can still happen.

When so many people all want the same thing and their leaders fail to deliver, it rocks my faith in democracy to the core. But I am not a quitter. Let me try one more time. Let’s give this guy one more chance to really be different. We effectively have three more days there in the U.S. to ask for what we want. So I am going to ask you to help.

I know, it seems like such a weak response to such a big problem, but let’s at least try. Let’s try everything we can to get the message to Obama that we want real leadership on this issue. Many of you have been asking me if you can share my emails. I am not only giving you permission to share or publish this email anywhere you want, I am asking you to please do so. Please share this email with anyone you think might care.

Then I am asking you to make that one phone call a day until this deal is done – White House switchboard – 1-202-456-1111. “President Obama, please show real leadership on the climate issue, not just a greenwash deal. Deepen our cuts, put long-term funding on the table and stop waiting for other countries to go first. Prove that America is the world leader we always claim.”

Again, I know it is a small effort on such a big problem, a forwarded email and three one-minute phone calls. But don’t let its small nature stop you. The Earth needs people who care more than ever. Rare moments in history arise when the way forward appears as a fork in the road. We’ll never know what might have or failed to have tipped the balance.

Please give a little push with me.


  1. I would really like someone to make a strong case for conferences such as the one at copenhagen. is this the best way to tackle the issue of global warming? what are the alternatives?

  2. I think unless there are much stronger world-wide environmentalist movements these conferences will fail. The bottom line is that adjusting to climate change is not good for the bottom line. And since most of the world seems to think that the economic bottom line=the best thing for all, most real change will be unpopular. But I was just reading an article reviewing several major new works on slavery. The conclusions on the new research is that SLAVERY was GOOD FOR the economy of the British empire AND the American states that used it! Well! Does that mean we bring back slavery? GDP might rise. I'll post more on that later, but the logic to me is inescapable: sometimes what is good for the GDP is not good for people or planets.

  3. Hey I called! Be warned, there was a 10-15 minute wait. It cost me 60 rupees, but I got to say my piece! They did not hang up on me when I said I was from Delhi; the receptionist said she was writing it all down. Will it make a difference in the short run? I would not bet on it. But miracles happen and it felt pretty good. My son's wrote letters to the President of the United States via the contact page ( My 9 year old said the war in Afghanistan was the most important thing, so he led with that. How proud was I?


What do you think?