New Storylines Emerging From Climate Negotiations

New Storylines Emerging From Climate Negotiations



TO:              Journalists and interested parties

FROM:          Karen Orenstein, Friends of the Earth

DATE:           September 22, 2010

SUBJ:              New storylines emerging from UN climate negotiations


United Nations climate negotiations will resume in Tianjin, China, on October 4, 2010. This is the first time formal international climate negations are taking place in China. Several stories are developing that you may wish to cover. Friends of the Earth is prepared to provide you with information and contacts related to each of these stories, should you decide to pursue them.


Lack of climate legislation in U.S. may lead to less tolerance for U.S. efforts to torpedo Kyoto Protocol


The U.S. remains the only wealthy country that has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol, the only international instrument related to climate change that contains legally binding emission reduction targets. The first period of emission reduction commitments under the Kyoto Protocol ends in 2012, the point at which, according to the Protocol, a second commitment period is supposed to start.


Instead of supporting this second commitment period, at the Copenhagen climate talks in December 2009, the U.S. championed the “Copenhagen Accord,” a weak, nonbinding document that features national pledges to reduce emissions that countries individually put forward, regardless of science, equity, and what national pledges add up to in aggregate. (The Kyoto Protocol assigns an aggregate and individual mitigation targets for developed countries, except the U.S.) The U.S. claims not to take a position on the Kyoto Protocol, but the “pledge-based” or “bottom-up” approach it has promoted in the Accord is, in practice, incompatible with a second commitment period for the Protocol and, in effect, is therefore an attempt to replace the Protocol with a far weaker substitute.


In the run-up to the Copenhagen summit and in the months afterward, many countries felt compelled to tolerate U.S. efforts to weaken international climate policies because they believed this was the only way to bring the U.S. on board, given the precarious state of U.S. domestic climate legislation. However, with U.S. legislation now seemingly off the table for the next few years, it is likely that the U.S. will come under increased criticism in Tianjin, with the possibility that many countries will propose moving forward on mitigation and other aspects of the negotiations without the U.S. This backlash has already started, as countries have increasingly voiced concerns about the role of the U.S. in recent months.[1]  For more information, please see the joint NGO analysis, “What Role for the U.S.? A Question for the Rest of the World.”[2]


Lack of climate legislation in U.S. may lead developing countries to buck U.S. demands


The lack of U.S. climate legislation will have another likely effect: increasing the bargaining power of poor countries. For the past several years, the United States has acted aggressively with regard to international climate negotiations to try and win concessions from developing countries. For example, to compel developing countries to associate with the Copenhagen Accord, the Obama administration threatened to withhold climate finance from countries outspoken in their opposition to it. Obama carried out this threat in the cases of Bolivia and Ecuador. U.S. Special Climate Envoy Todd Stern has also vigorously pressed to shift the burden to address climate change onto many developing countries by calling for an agreement that is “legally symmetrical” with “the same elements binding on all countries, except the least developed.”[3]  The U.S. has especially pushed China to adopt greenhouse gas reduction commitments, making particular demands about the measurement, reporting, and verification of its mitigation actions. More recently, the U.S. articulated that it will block forward movement on establishing a global climate fund if its demands on mitigation and transparency from developing countries, especially China, aren’t met. Stern issued a new ultimatum at the Geneva Dialogue on Climate Finance earlier this month, saying, “We are not going to move on the Green Fund [a UNFCCC climate fund to help developing countries adapt to and mitigate climate change] and the $100 billion [in long-term financing that the U.S. had previously promised to help deliver]. If the issues that were central to the Copenhagen Accord that were part of the balance of the Copenhagen Accord, including mitigation and transparency, don’t also move.”[4]


The U.S.’s bargaining chips in international climate talks have historically hinged on two promises: the prospect of binding U.S. emissions cuts and the U.S.’s provision of climate finance.  But the U.S. has largely lost both of these leverage points. Without the prospect of U.S. climate legislation passing anytime soon, the Obama administration has lost much of its credibility on this issue and its ability to make demands of developing countries. With its recent attempt in Geneva to hold climate finance hostage to more actions from developing countries, particularly in the areas of mitigation and transparency, the U.S. has reinforced its image as a bad faith negotiator making onerous and unreasonable demands.


China has lower per capita emissions and higher poverty than the U.S., yet is investing much more aggressively in clean energy


As the climate meeting takes place in China, much attention in the U.S. is likely to be directed toward comparisons of the two countries. Critics who wish to engage in China bashing for domestic political purposes may point out that China now produces more total greenhouse gas emissions than the U.S., implying that China should act first when it comes to emissions reductions.


However, per capita, the U.S. is still a far larger polluter than China (19.2 vs. 4.9 metric tons in 2008) and the U.S. has a much greater economic capacity to act. China is still a developing country. Some one-third of China’s population lives on less than $2 a day; per capita GDP in the U.S. is some eight and a half times higher than in China. Moreover, a significant portion of China’s emissions footprint actually belongs to developed countries, as a quarter of Chinese emissions come from producing goods that are exported to, and consumed in, places like the U.S.[5] Finally, because carbon dioxide emissions remain in the atmosphere for decades, a nation’s cumulative (rather than annual) greenhouse gas emissions are central to determining its responsibility to act. Over the last century, the U.S. has put far more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than China.


Despite this, the Chinese appear to be taking climate change and clean energy development substantially more seriously than the U.S. on many levels. For example, an estimated 12 percent of the 2009 stimulus package in the U.S. is considered green, compared to 34 percent of China’s 2009 stimulus.[6]


United Steelworkers challenge China’s green development


The United Steelworkers union filed a 5,800-page petition with the U.S. Trade Representative on September 9, 2010, alleging that China has violated international trade law by providing subsidies to its clean energy industry. The Obama administration must decide by October 24 if it will take the petition forward for further action at the World Trade Organization (WTO). Although the Steelworkers’ complaint focuses on China, it also points to the continued failure of the U.S. government to enact comprehensive climate policies and scale up investment in the emerging clean energy sector, which will heavily disadvantage the competitive position of the U.S. and U.S. workers moving forward. 


This move by the U.S. Steelworkers will likely have repercussions in the UN climate negotiations. The U.S. has harshly criticized China for its greenhouse gas emissions, yet China is now being attacked for doing exactly what the U.S. has demanded of it.  The impact of trade measures on carbon emissions has historically been a hot-button issue.  For example, in 2009 developing countries criticized the Waxman-Markey bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives for its proposed “border adjustment measure,” a tariff on carbon-intensive imports of countries deemed not to have taken sufficient action on climate change. Moreover, the Steelworkers’ petition will raise questions about one of the top priorities of the climate negotiations: climate finance. Funding for developing countries to transition to clean technologies is part of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which requires wealthy countries to help developing countries build up locally appropriate, endogenous clean energy industries. Will industries in developed countries now launch trade wars as countries make good on their UNFCCC promises?


It is also important to note that the WTO unduly constrains the ability of governments to act in the public interest, in this case, to enact effective climate policies. For example, many existing and proposed climate-related policies and programs run afoul of WTO rules. President Obama would surely not acquiesce in the face of trade challenges to policies designed to protect both U.S. livelihoods and the environment. Developing countries are certain to point out this contradiction in the Tianjin negotiations. For a developing country perspective on the Steelworkers’ petition, and on how the WTO’s subsidies agreement is prejudiced against developing countries, please see Trade: Beware of U.S. Protectionism by Martin Khor.[7]


A Way Forward


It is clear that domestic politics at this time will not allow the United States to lead global efforts to tackle climate change. The Obama administration must stop pretending it can lead. It must cease its efforts to drag the rest of the world down to its very low level of ambition, when what the climate crisis demands is far higher ambition from all developed countries.


In 2007, international climate negotiators developed a solution to bring the slow-moving U.S. on board with global climate action—a solution that won the support of the Bush administration. The 2007 Bali Action Plan included a carve-out for the United States: a special section (paragraph 1(b)(i)) to ensure that the U.S. would make emissions reductions (under the UNFCCC’s Long-term Cooperative Action negotiating track) that were comparable to those made by other wealthy countries under the Kyoto Protocol negotiating track.


Instead of trying to torpedo the Kyoto Protocol, the U.S. should simply plug its weak reduction pledge (currently 3-4 percent below 1990 levels by 2020) into its own special section of the Bali Action Plan while other developed countries continue with emissions reductions under the Protocol.  This would allow the world to move forward and avoid the danger of a gap between Kyoto commitment periods, during which binding emissions reduction targets for other developed countries could disappear. The European Union, rather than continuing its strategy of catering to the U.S., could reemerge as a climate leader and take up the cause of binding, equitable, and science-based emissions targets.





[1] See, for example, “U.S. Steps Up Its Effort Against a European System of Fees on Airline Emissions,” New York Times, September 10, 2010.

[2] “What Role for the U.S.? A Question for the Rest of the World.”

[3] U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern Keynote Address As Prepared May 18, 2010, Brookings Conference– Energy and Climate Change 2010: Back to the Future,

[4] Remarks of Special Climate Envoy Todd Stern in Geneva in September 2010:

[5] Briefing by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, July 9, 2008:

[6] “Stimulus is Greenest in South Korea and China,” Reuters, Sept. 25, 2009.

[7] Khor, Martin. “Watch out for New U.S. Protectionism Abroad,” The China Post, September 15, 2010.

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