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The Doha nuance

"Given the volumes of methane leaked in fracking, a carbon tax at the well-head could cancel the pixie dust “North American energy independence” boom/bust debacle overnight. But that is not enough to stave off 4-degrees. "


In an era when public discourse is pushed through the bottleneck of paid advertising minutes and distilled to 15 and 30 second soundbytes or bumpersticker slogans, we’ve lost nuance. When warned by Judge Julius Hoffman to “stick to the facts” during the trial of the Chicago-Seven, Norman Mailer protested, “Facts are nothing without their nuance, sir.”

We guess that, all considered, we are better off with a US President that understands nuance than one that doesn’t. This one we have for the next 4 years has a good science advisory team, and that can’t hurt the understanding of nuance, either. It is perhaps because of nuance that we are a bit more hopeful of progress in Doha than we should be, having reached this giddy condition before, at COPs in Copenhagen, Cancun and Durban, before watching it dissolve in negotiating perfidy.

In 2009 President Obama stepped into the Copenhagen COP at the last moment and substituted a voluntary pledge system for what had been shaping up to be a binding treaty. Global emissions rose 2.6% last year and are now 58% higher than 1990 levels. Pledges are not enough to keep the world on a path to a 2°C limit of climate change. Obama saw an opening in Copenhagen, but did not appreciate the nuance. Pledges are not legal commitments.

Airline Exhaust

Airport Do-The-Math Greeters in Doha

Another example was the COP-18 first week’s flap over air transport rules. On November 27 President Obama signed into law the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme Prohibition Act of 2011. The new law authorizes — but does not require — the Secretary of Transportation to prohibit airlines from participating in the European Union's anti-pollution regime. Seen through Republican legislators’ eyes the bill was a triumph of climate denialism — allowing the US to opt out of European progressive democracy.
Europe’s Aviation Directive holds airlines accountable for emissions associated with commercial flights that land at or take off from EU airports. By forcing airlines to become more fuel efficient, the program removes the equivalent of atmospheric carbon added annually by all the cars in Europe. Since US airlines land at EU airports, they would have to comply, were they not prohibited by the new US law.

If the Secretary of Transportation were to implement the prohibition outlined in the bill, it would require unlawful (under EU laws) behavior on the part of U.S. airlines and would risk igniting a trade war with the European Union as US flights get banned from EU air space, and vice versa in reprisal.

Fortunately, the EU blinked. It “stopped the clock” on implementation of the system, to allow time for negotiation. In a statement after the signing, the White House said:

The Administration remains focused on making progress in reducing aviation emissions through the appropriate multilateral forum – the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) — and we welcome the recent progress there in establishing a new High Level Group charged with accelerating negotiations on a basket of measures that all countries can adopt at the next ICAO Assembly meeting in September 2013 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from aviation.

Major beltway environmental groups, EDF, WWF, Earthjustice, and NRDC included, praised the White House move as a positive step, saying “Now the spotlight is on ICAO, and on whether the U.S. will step forward with the real leadership needed to drive agreement on an ICAO program to cut aviation’s carbon pollution.”

In contrast, many grassroots organizations did not grasp, or didn’t care about, the nuance. They sported placards in Doha demanding that the EU start the clock again and that Obama direct his Transportation Secretary to ignore the new US law. If the Obama Administration wastes its year of negotiations within the ICAO or dampens ICAO authority, then the nuance is a distinction without a difference. But if the year of negotiation produces airline carbon reductions that can also apply to US airports, and those in other non-EU nations, then the nuance is important, and no one needs to be tugging at the President’s elbow just yet.

Trick or Treaty

COP18 protest: Note the Artificial Trees

Another example is the question of to whom the burden of counting carbon belongs. Many of the placards held up outside Doha venues call for “climate justice” or “pay your historic debt” and countries like India and Bolivia have latched onto these slogans to go slow on their own commitments. The United States flatly rejects the notion of climate debt, and points to the fact that most emissions come from the developing world, with China being number one in gross carbon pollution and Qatar being the top emitter on a per capita basis. The impasse over climate justice is made out to be a big deal. The nuance is more subtle.

In the United States, electric power plants emit about 2.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year, or roughly 40 percent of the nation's total emissions and a quarter of the world’s. The Obama EPA has taken important first steps by setting standards that will cut carbon from automobiles and trucks nearly in half by 2025 and by proposing standards to limit carbon pollution from new power plants. But Obama’s EPA has yet to tackle the hundreds of existing fossil-fueled power plants in the United States, and it is opening up vast new industries in fracking and tar sands.


Civil society, led by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), has a plan to reduce power plant pollution, and it requires no new laws. It is already authorized under the Clean Air Act of 1970, so would not involve confrontation with climate denier committees of Congress to implement. The plan would cut CO2 pollution from America's power plants by 26% by 2020 and 34% by 2025. The price tag: about $4 billion. But the benefits — in saved lives, reduced illnesses, and climate change avoided — would be $26 to 60 billion, 6 to 15 times greater than the costs. Consider Hurricane Sandy.

Naturally, if the US were to go ahead and implement the NRDC plan, it would like to get some kind of credit for the reduction. Maybe even a historical credit.


On the other side of the planet, China is being told it is the number one polluter, but most of that pollution comes from mining and importing fossil fuels to power conversion of petrochemicals to components for iPhones, Fisher Price toddler computers, and Barbies for Wal•Mart. So who should pay for China’s pollution controls?


In our view, the most promising approach is to tax carbon at the mine and well. Raising the price there propagates conservation incentives downstream, at every conversion point. Given the volumes of methane leaked in fracking, it could cancel the pixie dust “North American energy independence” boom/bust debacle overnight. But that is not enough.


There needs to be a financial incentive for countries like India, South Africa and Brazil to adopt pollution controls similar to the NRDC plan for the US. And that is where the minutia of negotiating a second Kyoto period comes into play. Kyoto is the only part of the COP negotiations that actually involves hard deadlines and enforcement of international law against violators. Kyoto-2 is a realistic goal for Doha to accomplish.


Anticipating a renewed Kyoto regime, Korea is spending 2 percent of its GDP on the low-carbon economy. China has embedded energy efficiency and renewables targets in its latest five-year plan and is testing carbon markets in seven of its provinces. The UK has set a 2050 target of 80% reduction in its carbon footprint. The US is silent.


It seems likely that a second Kyoto period will be adopted, beginning in 2015. The debate, as UNFCCC chair Christiana Figueres said in her opening address to the high level delegates, is whether ambition for targets is enough to hold the world to a 2 degree temperature rise, or whether lowered ambitions brokered to get the final deal condemn us to a devastating (for civilization) 4 degrees or more. The nuance, for Obama, is that adopting Kyoto will require a 75% majority in the US Senate, but if he can’t achieve that, he could still go around it with NRDC-like plans for every sector of the economy, using existing regulatory authority given by Congress to President Nixon and recently upheld vis a vis the EPA and CO2 by the Roberts Supreme Court.

“The 4°C scenarios are devastating… The projected 4°C warming simply must not be allowed to occur—the heat must be turned down. Only early, cooperative, international actions can make that happen.” — November 2012 Report for the World Bank by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics.

“Lowered ambitions brokered to get the deal” did we say? This is President Obama’s forte. Is it possible to surprise us? Does he appreciate that nuance actually gives him power here? If so, then what we will see in Doha in the next few days is the US advocating for Kyoto-2, signed, sealed and delivered. It will be a historic reversal of Obama's position in Copenhagen, but who's counting? That kind of nuance is outside the ken of his opponents.

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