Director Reno Harnish’s Introductory Remarks to the World Affairs Council

Framing A Solution to Climate Change

May 14, 2014

I.  Global Generational Challenge:

Secretary of State John Kerry said in February that climate change ranks among the world’s most serious problems — such as disease outbreaks, poverty, terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction — Secretary Kerry called on all nations to respond to “the greatest challenge of our generation.” (CNN).

To meet the greatest challenge, one must pursue a diplomatic solution to the problem.  A diplomatic solution is necessary, because the principal climate forcer is carbon dioxide, which tends to mix evenly in the atmosphere.  China with 28% of global emissions will experience the impact of United States with its15% of global emissions and vice versa.  They are the two largest producers of GHG, which combined account for more than 40 percent of carbon pollution.

There is no domestic U.S. solution absent an international agreement to reduce emissions.

II. A Potential Solution  

The Durban Platform for Enhanced Action emerged in 2013 at the 19th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  The text called for a deal by 2015 in Paris with reductions of GHG emissions to begin in 2020. Nations were enjoined to intensify preparations for nationally determined contributions.

Countries are expected to state publicly what are their domestic emission reduction commitments and these will be reviewed by the international community.  The commitments are to become an “agreed outcome with legal force.

Allowing countries to draft their own emissions reduction plans rather than working toward a common target can unlock languishing U.N. climate negotiations. According to U.S. climate change envoy Stern, the international commitments (or nationally determined contributions) will need to be flexible so that each nation can determine their own targets.  They must be sufficiently ambitious to head off dangerous climate change.  Third, there needs to be greater clarity on emissions measurement and reporting to ensure continuing trust.

More encouraging diplomatic news (Financial Times) came from reports in late April that China and the U.S. are in an ambitious new phase of talks on curbing CO2.  (Their differences were brutally discussed one month earlier in the Bonn UNFCCC meeting.) Now, they are reportedly discussing mutual carbon cutting goals.  The bilateral talks were launched last year but now have reached a new level of intensity.  China’s motivation in part seems to be a new determination to tackle air pollution, localized health, impacts of PM, and an interest in tackling climate change simultaneously.

President Obama will try to assemble the U.S. international emission reduction commitments without passing major legislation on climate change. The Administration recently established new fuel efficiency standards for trucks.  In June 2014 the EPA is expected to promulgate new rules governing carbon pollution from power plants.  A World Resources Institute analysis found that a 17% reduction in 2020 from 2005 levels could be achieved by indirect measures like emission reductions from power plants and natural gas systems. Also HFC reduction through the Montreal Protocol would help.      

III. Financial resources for developing countries:

A key stumbling block to a successful meeting in Paris is the adequacy of resource flows to developing countries. China suggested recently that developed countries should pay $40 billion per year to developing countries for climate mitigation and adaptation measures.  That figure should rise by $10 billion each year.  (For perspective, the Development Assistance Committee members had a total $127 billion in all official development assistance in 2012).

IV. In Conclusion:

Expect discord at the COP in Lima in 2014. China, India, and others are still calling for Common but Differentiated Responsibility. The U.S. is still calling for an agreement that covers all countries by 2020.  Finally, poor countries want increased funding at levels that developed country treasuries might find difficult to support.

For the future, one could imagine the climate change talks going in a number of directions.  Thinking about climate negotiations on pessimistic days, I recall that the World Trade Organization round blew apart giving way to bilateral and regional trade arrangements.  However, more regularly I take some hope from the success of the Montreal Protocol to combat stratospheric ozone depletion.  It is an example of countries cooperating to solve a global environmental problem.

Comment are closed.
scripps oceanography uc san diego