A historic moment will unfold Sept. 22 at the United Nations headquarters, as U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao speak to top world leaders, each offering specific proposals for reducing pollution from greenhouse gases that are affecting the global climate.
Despite the speeches, controversy remains among large and small nations, and it often resembles a high stakes poker game. Who are the players? Who is bluffing? And who has the best hand?
Last December in Poznan, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told delegates and ministers from 190 countries assembled at the UNFCCC event that if foreign ministers didn’t make enough progress in the first half of 2009, he was willing to place global warming on the agenda for their bosses to address at the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York. He made good on this promise.
Throughout 2009, there have been many diplomatic climate meetings held around the world, with all the right countries attending. The talks are moving about as slowly as a cold war discussion about nuclear weapons. While some progress has been made, namely the U.S. coming to the table for the first time, there are major differences yet to be negotiated.
The U.N. is nudging politicians by declaring this to be Global Climate Week, and pushing a “Seal the Deal” campaign among business and environmental advocates. With a goal of putting the final terms in a treaty for all 190 countries to sign mid-December in Copenhagen, Denmark, there are many details to be worked out.
- U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon
- Yvo de Boer, Executive Secretary of UNFCCC
- U.S. President Barack Obama
- Chinese President Hu Jintao and 23 other world leaders
- U.S. Sen. John Kerry
- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
- Todd D. Stern, U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change
Least developed countries and their leaders are miffed they don’t get to attend the Sept. 22 meeting.
The High Stakes
It’s too late to stop global warming. Scientists warn additional delays to implementing aggressive reductions in carbon dioxide could intensify the negative effects of climate change.
What will the biggest polluters commit to? China and the U.S. are responsible for 40 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.
How much should developing countries like China and India reduce their greenhouse gas emissions?
How to Count
The United States and China may propose a new system to track pollution reductions, allowing each country to set its own rules and determine how it plans to meet U.N. targets. Some EU officials are alarmed about scrapping the Kyoto system and the time required to start over.
Brazil says U.S. emission reduction levels are not steep enough on the timeline. The proposed climate legislation pending in Congress would achieve a 4 percent reduction below 1990 levels by 2020. Other countries want a 40 percent reduction from the U.S. by that time.
Russia says it won’t play without China and the U.S. making big reductions. Australia and Canada have made similar threats.
Both China and India have been complaining loudly that their countries should be allowed more time to continue polluting at the same pace because they are considered developing countries.
Most estimates for climate mitigation and adaptation run in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Who has the money, especially in today’s global recession?
Each year, U.S. taxpayers spend billions of dollars combating global terrorism, nuclear proliferation, poverty and HIV/AIDS. Although the timing is terrible, Americans will eventually be asked to pony up to fight yet another threat to the planet in the way of climate change.
So far, U.S. Climate Envoy Todd Stern has been saying the U.S. will provide aid to other countries through technology transfer of best practices for energy efficiency and clean energy. Other countries maintain that countries creating the most pollution should pay cash to the countries that are most negatively impacted.
This could result in American taxpayers picking up most of the tab to stop deforestation of Brazilian and Indonesian rainforests, and helping Pacific island nations like Tuvalu that may need to abandon their land due to rising sea levels.
The question of who collects and distributes funding for climate adaptation is another area for contention among nations.
The Best Hand
Advantage probably goes to China and the United States. China is both a manufacturing behemoth and also a rapidly emerging player on clean energy. The U.S. has some of the brightest minds and game-changing technology.
The Next Game
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is working on a replacement for the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. The next conference of parties (COP 15) is slated for Dec. 7-18, 2009, in Copenhagen.
Yvo de Boer doubts every detail of a new treaty will be in place by COP 15, but believes it’s important to get the signatures from 190 national leaders. He also believes it’s important for long-term business investment, saying, “You can’t really afford to keep waiting and waiting and waiting for governments to say where they’re going to go on this issue.”
After this week at the U.N., the next hand in this poker game will come from the U.S. Senate, as they consider their own version of the American Clean Energy and Security Act. The House of Representatives approved their version in June.
As country music star Kenny Rogers sang in The Gambler, “You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away and know when to run.”
Kevin Tuerff is principal and cofounder of Green Canary Sustainability Consulting and EnviroMedia Social Marketing.