TWN Info Service on Climate Change (Oct14/04)
20 October 2014
Third World Network

Experts take sides on new U.S. position on Paris talks

Lisa Friedman, E&E reporter
Published: Thursday, October 16, 2014

The United States' backing this week of a legally ambiguous 2015 global warming deal has exposed long-standing fissures between the pragmatists and social justice activists in the international climate movement.

At issue is whether the agreement that nations pledged to forge in Paris next year should be an international treaty, a loose voluntary pact or something in between. The question gets to the thorny issue of fairness, which has plagued negotiations between rich and poor nations for decades.

A full-blown treaty will never fly in the United States, goes the American thinking. For such a deal to even have a long-shot chance of Senate approval, all countries -- including China and India -- would have to agree to be held to the same legal standards. Yet those and other developing nations are equally loath to sign up to globally mandated carbon cuts. Moreover, those countries say they should not have to do so, since industrialized nations caused climate change to begin with.

The Obama administration thinks it has found a way out of the cycle of blame and evasion. The solution comes in the form of a proposal <> from New Zealand that seems to take a softer legal approach in the hopes of bringing more nations into the emissions-cutting fold. U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern this week openly embraced the idea as the "most interesting proposal on the table."

Specifically, the plan calls for countries to set domestic emissions targets of their choosing, then face legal obligations to give the United Nations a schedule for when those cuts will happen and to submit to binding review measures. The big numbers, though -- the tons of climate pollution each nation will slash -- would not be internationally legally binding.

'Cute,' but 'unhelpful'

"That's cute. But it's completely unhelpful," said Michael Dorsey, interim director of the energy and environment program at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, D. C.

"The reality is, when countries are given a pass -- and a pass is voluntarism -- without being forced to sign on the dotted line on a legally binding agreement, more often than not, countries don't deliver on those commitments," Dorsey said.

Meena Raman, coordinator of the climate change program for the Third World Network, a coalition focused on development issues, agreed.

"The United States approach and the New Zealand approach is actually a race to the bottom," Raman said. "The time to say, 'I will do what I can based on my national circumstance,' is over. It is really immoral. What the United States is doing and New Zealand is doing is to condemn everybody to disaster."

At the heart of those arguments lies the belief that the United States and other wealthy nations should be held to stricter standards -- legally and financially -- because they have polluted the longest and have become wealthy on a fossil fuel diet that is now causing poor countries to suffer. Forcing poor countries to take on equal legal responsibility to wealthy ones, Dorsey said, "fundamentally undermines the idea that the polluter should pay. And the polluter, in this case, is the United States."

That's where the pragmatists come in.

"This is the kind of 'perfect is the enemy of the good' thinking that has stalemated the talks for more than 15 years," Paul Bledsoe, a senior energy fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

It's also a view the Obama administration categorically rejects.

"That approach is not going to advance the ball, because first of all, developed countries don't accept that worldview," Stern said of the Kyoto Protocol-era arguments in a Yale Law School speech this week. Many developing countries, he argues, are now not only top emitters but also major historic emitters with the financial means to make emissions cuts, as well, that they did not have when U. N. rules were designed in 1992.

Top-down vs. bottom-up

Nigel Purvis, a former Clinton administration climate negotiator who has written extensively about how a 2015 agreement might take shape, recently described a potential path forward much like the New Zealand proposal.

"Nations could make the procedural elements of the new climate agreement -- such as the obligation to file reports and participate in international consultations -- legally binding, while leaving the substantive elements -- including the all-important emissions-mitigation pledges -- nonbinding at the international level but with assurances they would be binding under domestic law," Purvis wrote in a Center for American Progress report<>.

That approach, he argued, might satisfy both European countries that favor legally binding deals and major emerging economies that want only rich nations to be legally obligated. Meanwhile, he said, "The compromise might also suit the Obama administration, which insists that the United States will only accept internationally legally binding obligations that apply to China and India too. This plan would maintain the symmetry the United States insists upon without necessarily causing major emerging economies to balk." And, by the way, Congress need not get involved.

Speaking with ClimateWire this week, Purvis said India holds the key to deciding how legally binding the 2015 deal will be.

"What probably matters most are the views of India, because virtually everyone agrees we should not repeat the mistakes of Kyoto in having one set of rules for developed countries and other set of rules for developing countries," he said. "India is the most cautious on legal form. The most India can live with is what the Paris agreement will be."

Dorsey, Raman and others said developing countries have no plans to relinquish demands that wealthy nations take steep, internationally legally binding cuts while also providing legally binding financial support to developing countries. But behind the scenes, others say, some chess pieces are in fact moving.

Elliot Diringer, executive vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions think tank, which has been leading a series of discussions with negotiators for big and small countries, said that despite still-heated debate, nations do seem to be converging around a "hybrid" 2015 deal. Diplomats, he said, are seeking the sweet spot between "top-down" elements sought by developing nations and "bottom-up" approaches desired by the United States.

"What you're trying to do is balance national flexibility and international discipline to achieve both broad participation and greater ambition. That's the balancing act," Diringer said. "A strong agreement accomplishes little if nobody joins in. But broad participation accomplishes little if the ambition is low. So you're trying to get both."

Lisa Friedman
Deputy Editor, ClimateWire
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