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Thursday Linkage: #Climate2014 Edition

September 17, 2014

On Tuesday September 23, the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon is hosting a meeting of world leaders to discuss the issue of climate change. The aim is to build pressure and support for action in advance of the climate negotiations to be held in Paris in late 2015. In advance of Tuesday’s climate meeting, activists are holding on Sunday, September 21st the People’s Climate March, what aims to be the largest march of its kind with a core march in New York and satellite marches in major cities around the world. The hashtag #Climate2014 is capturing much of the news about the upcoming meeting and marches.

While the news in other spheres has been rather dire of late, activists I’ve talked to are optimistic that 2014 and 2015 may be the most propitious time for successful climate action in years. With the worst of the financial crisis behind us, there may be scope for real commitments and concerted action. There are dark clouds of course: emissions reached an unprecedented high last year and some key leaders, notably those from China and India, are skipping Tuesday’s meeting, but there is also hope. In this set of links, I try to provide some context for the renewed sense of anticipation for this meeting and 2015.

What’s at Stake Next Week?

  • Grist magazine has a helpful rundown of what’s supposed to happen, not negotiations but speeches, yet more purpose than your typical gathering of heads of state.
  • Lisa Friedman in E&E News provides a sense of advocates optimism but downplays expectations for major announcements from President Obama.
  • Peter Ogden in Foreign Affairs lays it out. In the lead up to Paris in 2015, there is a narrow window of opportunity:

It took a few years, but never before has U.S. domestic and international climate policy been so well aligned. And that too just in time for the final sprint to the Paris climate conference, where countries will seek to finalize a new climate deal to succeed the Copenhagen Accord after 2020.

Although a wide range of agreements may seem possible, the space for a viable deal remains quite limited, and failure is always a possibility. Still, the U.S. administration can maximize its chances of success by executing a strategy focused on securing the gains of the Copenhagen Accord and galvanizing new global action to meet the climate challenge.

Why Is There Optimism?

Actors are making important commitments individually and collectively in advance of the meeting. The action is not limited to states. We are also seeing commitments by businesses and cities. Some of the important ones are below:

  • HFC Phasedown. President Obama will announce a faster phasedown of HFCs, a potent greenhouse gas that comes from a chemical used as a coolant in refrigerants and air conditioners. He is set to reach a voluntary agreement with manufacturers and will step up diplomatic efforts to reduce HFCs in other countries.  HFCs were actually a replacement for ozone-depleting chemicals but proved themselves to have a stronger global warming potential than the main greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. They don’t persist in the atmosphere very long which means actions to reduce current emissions and prevent future ones could have an important effect preventing warming even during our lifetimes. Their use in India and China is set to increase dramatically if available substitutes are not deployed widely.
  • Zero-Deforestation Palm Oil. Major companies are pledging that their products will source palm oil from sources that do not involve deforestation. Krispy Kreme and Dunkin’ Donuts are the latest companies to join the Forest Trust. Palm oil production, particularly in Indonesia, is responsible for destruction of Indonesia rainforests and peat bogs, robbing the world of an important carbon sink. This initiative is an important area of supply chain social responsibility that we have also seen in Brazil for beef and soy producers.
  • Climate Finance. This summer, Germany’s Angela Merkel pledged the equivalent of $1 billion to the Green Climate Fund which is set to be the main institutional body to administer climate funds going forward, both for mitigation and adaptation. The Fund was just finalized a couple of years ago with headquarters in Korea but save for a cash infusion from Korea, the Fund had hardly any money. The New York meeting next week may yield some new announcements from other donors on funding. While this is a far cry from the $100 billion that donors pledged to mobilize from public and private sources every year by 2020, Germany’s move was certainly a step in the right direction.
  •  Methane Leakage. Once again, the Obama Administration aims to use its executive authority to overcome Congressional inertia by issuing new rules on methane leakage. While the shale gas revolution potentially offers a source of energy that produces half as much carbon dioxide as coal-based energy, that’s contingent upon very low leakage rates of methane, another even more powerful greenhouse gas. Studies differ on how much methane leakage is happening. However, existing technologies may enable us to reduce a large chunk of those emissions at low cost. We may see some important announcements next week by energy companies to limit their methane emissions.
  • China and Cap-and-Trade. So China’s leader is skipping the Tuesday gathering, but China does seem to be poised to take more serious action, experimenting with cap-and-trade initiatives to limit emissions. China absolutely has to get a handle on its air pollution, and though some policies to address air pollution such as coal to gas may make the climate problem worse, there is hope (and evidence) that China’s drive to address air pollution can produce climate benefits.
  • Rolling Stone has a major story on how much is riding on China and puts the challenge in perspective:
    China is set to become the largest economy in the world this year, and in 2006, it passed the U.S. as the planet’s largest carbon polluter. China now dumps 10 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. That number is expected to grow to 15 billion tons by 2030, dwarfing the pollution of the rest of the world. If that happens, then the chances that the world will cut carbon pollution quickly enough to avert dangerous climate change is, according to Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the U.K., “virtually zero.”

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Joshua Busby is an Associate Professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin. He is the author of Moral Movements and Foreign Policy (Cambridge, 2010) and the co-author, with Ethan Kapstein, of AIDS Drugs for All: Social Movements and Market Transformations (Cambridge, 2013). His main research interests include transnational advocacy and social movements, international security and climate change, global public health and HIV/ AIDS, energy and environmental policy, and U.S. foreign policy. He also tends to blog about global wildlife conservation.