Varun Sivaram

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Could the U.S. Walk Out at Cancun?

by Michael Levi
November 24, 2010

The buzz around the Cancun climate talks is that progress is possible on a range of issues, including things like technology centers, support for avoided deforestation, and a financial mechanism for helping developing countries. What these all have in common is that they involve developed countries doing things for developing countries. The one thing that developed countries could get in return is progress on transparency – but that file is in worse shape.

There are decent odds that the United States will be presented with a final package that takes action on all sorts of things that developing countries want but doesn’t have any clear wins for Washington. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see the U.S. reject such an outcome, even if it means walking away with nothing and being attacked for that. Rule #1 for U.S. climate negotiators has always been to make sure that what happens in the UN talks doesn’t hurt prospects for domestic action. Headlines that say “U.S. gives money, technology to developing world; gets nothing in return” won’t exactly fit that bill.

The potential problem is made worse by the fact that many European leaders and UN officials not only seem ok with an unbalanced outcome – they seem to believe that the U.S. would cave in the end. I’m constantly struck by speeches I hear about the Copenhagen accord that focus almost entirely on what it did for poorer countries, and ignore the transparency deal that was critical to it.

The United States knows its bottom lines, and will focus substantial attention on the transparency file. But it may not be particularly effective if it doesn’t have others pushing alongside it, particularly given the sorry state of its domestic policy. And if European leaders think that the U.S. will go along with whatever’s presented to them in the end, they won’t put in too much effort to help the U.S. out.

All of which is a recipe for a potentially ugly ending.

Happy Thanksgiving.

P.S. I’ll be in Cancun for the second week of the talks, but I’ll have plenty to say here starting much sooner.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Nikhil

    Transparency?? First, species that account for much of the radiative forcing are not counted (ozone, black carbon); second, species that cause cooling (aerosols, in particular SO2) are not counted; third, from what is supposed to be counted (CO2, methane, ODS and substitutes, etc.), only selected sources are routinely reported and played up (i.e., CO2 from fossil fuels and cement production)and the rest ignored for the most part (say, GHGs and BC from the BP oil spill, bunker fuels, and all the emissions caused by the Nato wars in other countries); fifth, only selected sinks are counted if at all (LULUCF).

    Add to that the practical fact that fossil fuel sales data don’t tell you how the fuel is used (except in power generation), the emission factors are cooked up and blindly applied ignoring all the variations due to fuel quality, operating conditions, combustion devices, etc. etc.

    “Transparency” is a charade. Kerry/Clinton hang on to it because they want to argue to the Congress that some “meaningful commitments” are obtained from the BICS.

    And if GHG data are misleading and cooked, someone should look at the GDP data.

    India could meet its commitment to lower carbon intensity by (i) converting all the black money to GDP statistics OR (ii) counting all GHGs and BC at 20-year GWPs. The two together will put it way ahead of the US.

    The academic pretense is numbing.

  • Posted by Nikhil

    Besides, an ugly ending could well be the start of a beautiful relationship. The multi-lateral process of negotiating one-sided legally binding agreements was flawed from the beginning, and now it threatens to turn into trade wars (Nick Stern being the most recent attacker and threat agent). The model borrowed from the Montreal Protocol cannot work for climate change, especially when it has been turned into an instrument of global regulation of fuel/electricity industries.

    Hearts will be broken, dreams will be shattered, deals will flounder, careers will be unpended, trillions of words and billions of dollars would go awaste, but at last the whole climate challenge would be handed over from infants to mature adults to deal with.

    Sooner or later. Cancun wouldn’t be a day too soon.

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