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Jake Schmidt’s Blog

Seizing the Opportunity: Reflections from the UN Climate Summit

Jake Schmidt

Posted September 24, 2009 in Greening China, Solving Global Warming

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Countdown to CopenhagenClimate week began with world leaders participating in a full day of discussions on global warming.  Over 100 world leaders were in attendance -- the largest gathering of world leaders on global warming and the first in many respects.  The leaders of a number of the key countries provided remarks.  Yesterday's events were intended to give a much needed injection of energy to the final stretch of the international negotiations to secure a new agreement in Copenhagen this December.

Remember, there are five key building blocks for the agreement that emerges from Copenhagen so we need to watch what details are filled in on each of these:

  1. Strong leadership from developed countries with firm and aggressive emissions reductions targets.
  2. Willingness of developing countries to undertake significant emissions reductions on their own that tangibly reduce the growth of their emissions in the near-term (e.g., to 2020) and lay the foundation for even deeper cuts in the medium-term.
  3. Turning the corner on efforts to combat global deforestation.
  4. Properly designed and performance-based incentives from developed countries to encourage even greater developing country emissions reductions.
  5. Support for adaptation to the impacts of climate change in the least vulnerable countries.

As I discussed there are some "rays of hope" in international efforts to address global warming.  And leader after leader effectively said something to the effect of: "the fate of future generations depends upon our choices today and our future is in our hands" (or something like that).  Some said it more eloquently than me, but my speech writers aren't paid as well.

The UN climate summit provided some boosts to the international negotiations as we lead into the final stretch before Copenhagen.  Some of these were significant enough to attract attention in the media, while others slipped a bit below the radar but are no less important.

China.  President Hu Jintao outlined a set of new actions that China will undertake to reduce their global warming pollution.  Most significant they signaled that they would reduce their emissions intensity (emissions per unit of Gross Domestic Product) by "a notable margin by 2020 from 2005 levels."  They held back the actual number that they would reduce their intensity by in 2020, but this is a negotiation (as I discussed here) so this isn't surprising at this stage.  But as I discussed here and my colleague Barbara Finamore discussed here, this action could mark an important shift in China's efforts. 

It is getting harder and harder for countries to hide behind the inaction of China with these promising signs from China. 

The details of this new commitment are important, but it is clear that China is willing to take steps to cut its emissions and they signaled that internationally.  The US has an important role to play in helping to secure that the detailed commitments that emerge from China are strong.  The Chinese will be looking to what the US will do domestically through its clean energy and climate bill, but also what the US will be asking of them through the US-China bilateral agreement.  A huge opportunity!

IndiaOver the last couple of weeks India has shown some very promising shifts in their position.  As my colleagues have discussed here and here, India recently announced it would quantify the emissions cuts it will make under its National Action Plan on Climate Change.  And India's Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh explained that India is: "...prepared to take on, voluntarily, unilaterally, mitigation actions as part of a domestic legislative agenda."

Anybody that has followed the negotiations will notice that this is a big shift in the Indian position.  They used be resistant to committing internationally to undertake efforts to reduce their emissions, even though on-the-ground in India they had actually moved on a number fronts to reduce emissions.  Details of these commitments need to be firmed up, but this another new opportunity!

JapanThe new Japanese government came to the UN and offered internationally to increase their emissions reduction target to 25% below 1990 levels by 2020.  This is an important improvement from the offer that the previous government put on the table.

Japan is a highly efficient economy in many respects so this more aggressive target is a positive sign.  It is a new opportunity that provides a much needed boost to the targets that developed countries are committing to!

US.  President Obama spoke before the UN and as NRDC's President stated:

"President Obama clearly understands the urgency of the climate crisis and the benefits to our economy, our health and our security that will come from shifting to a clean energy economy. With his continued engagement the United States can enact strong legislation at home and mobilize the international community to meet this challenge."

This is an opportunity that can be seized by the Senate beginning next week as the debate on the climate bill begins in earnest when a bill is expected to be released by Senator Kerry and Boxer.  A lot of work is occurring behind the scenes in the Senate, so I'm optimistic that a bill can move quickly through the Senate.  Passage of this bill will put the US in a strong position to secure a strong international agreement and seize this opportunity!

Seizing the Opportunity.  These bits of momentum provide an opportunity as world leaders meet in Pittsburgh for the G20.  The question is will they seize this opportunity, build upon it in Pittsburgh, and provide an extra boost for the final stretch of the international negotiations.

Will they commit to move forward the important debate on providing the needed investments in developing countries on clean energy, deforestation, and international adaptation?

I'll be here in Pittsburgh watching this debate and nudging for a clear signal from world leaders that they will bring a commitment to Copenhagen to support the needed investment in developing countries.  And they'll have to provide a clear signal that they are poised to secure a strong agreement in Copenhagen.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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