Day 1 of the much anticipated international climate talks in Poznan, Poland has come and gone. The official opening of the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP 14) featured the election of Mr. Maciej Nowicki, the Polish Minister of the Environment, as president of the global gathering.
During his opening speech, Minister Nowicki said:
Thank you very much for your confidence and entrusting me with this honorable, but also very difficult and responsible role of chairing this UN conference on climate change, which we have just begun. This Conference is taking place in a very peculiar time, when the world community is more and more aware that humankind in its activities reached the limits of a closed system of the planet Earth. Further expansion in the same manner will generate global threats of really great intensity.
Hopes and expectations for outcomes of the two week summit are moderately calibrated, due largely in part to the lame duck status of the U.S. presidency. Perhaps the wisest statement on how the talks will be viewed by the noticing world came very recently from a commentator who stated that we will see only what we expect to see and no more.
Despite criticism that there is lack of agreement on a vision for this gathering, there is universal agreement on the role of the Poznan Conference of Parties (COP 14) as a stepping stone to a critical international climate meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December 2009 which is slated to deliver a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol, thereby framing a post-2012 climate change regime. There is also great optimism that the meeting in Poznan will deliver baseline agreements in areas such as technology support, adaptation and deforestation, and continued financing for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Secretariat.
But hovering over the global gathering like a big tethered balloon is the political question: what will the new U.S. administration do and how will the world respond?
The U.S. period of interregnum will not provide a solid response, although the well-defined shadows of an answer are taking shape. The Bush administration has avoided laying out a significant climate change policy during its eight years, and the U.S. has assumed at best an obstructionist role at these international negotiations. Clearly in the final weeks of the Bush Presidency, there will be no surprises at Poznan.
President-elect Obama has expressed an entirely different view on the urgency of climate change, indicating that his Administration will actively participate in ongoing international discussions and negotiations. In the context of the financial crisis, he has stated that he will not interfere with the current Administration's efforts, and will adopt the same approach to Poznan. However, considerable emphasis will be placed on any informal discussions with members of his transition team, several of whom are expected to attend. There is great concern that the Obama transition team, while promising a more pro-active U.S. stance on climate change than the world has seen in years, will continue to enunciate its tepid short-term emissions reductions target of 1990 levels by 2020 rather than the IPCC recommended target of 25-40% below 1990 levels for Annex I countries.
A good outcome for the talks in Poznan, therefore, will be for other countries to set the bar high, and commit to a concerted global effort, with anticipation of a more pro-active U.S. role, to set the predicates for a robust new agreement over the next year. It is certain that the European Union will be one of the drivers for an aggressive global climate change agenda, as the Poznan conference will conclude at the same time as the European Union summit of December 11-12 in Brussels, where discussions on the EU climate and energy package will wrap up. EU leaders have already committed the EU to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 20% below 1990 levels in order to start transforming Europe into a highly energy-efficient, low-carbon economy. Furthermore, the EU is committing to a 20% reduction in projected annual energy use in 2020 through greater energy efficiency and to an increase in the share of renewable energy to 20% by 2020, including a share of at least 10% for renewable fuels in road transport in each Member State by the same year.
The EU’s greenhouse gas emissions are already falling due to the combined impact of policies and measures resulting from the European Climate Change Programme, domestic action taken by Member States and the restructuring of European industry, particularly the transition to the open market economy in central and eastern Europe in the early 1990s. These factors have enabled the EU to “decouple” emissions from economic growth.
Armed with more than a modicum of success, the EU is coming to Poznan to push for the following:
- Commitments by developed countries to reduce their collective emissions to 30% below 1990 levels by 2020. These commitments must reflect comparable efforts between different countries;
- Action by developing countries, especially the big emerging economies, to limit growth in their emissions, by keeping them 15-30% below projected 'business as usual' levels in 2020;
- A framework for strengthened development and deployment of clean technology, including its transfer to developing countries.
Hopes are high that the EU will succeed in Poznan even while sitting at the table with an American lame duck, as there is little disagreement that the U.S. holds the key to a successful global climate treaty. Without aggressive domestic action by the world's second largest greenhouse gas emitter, other nations will not respond in kind and there will be no agreement in Copenhagen.
Over the next twelve months, there will, no doubt, be a number of initiatives emanating out of the White House and Congress to shape climate change policy. These initiatives will include funding for energy efficiency, renewable energy technology, and carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology development as part of an economic stimulus package, and separate climate legislation including a federal cap and trade bill. In tandem, there will be reinvigoration of the U.S. role in international climate change negotiations, with the prospect of a U.S. president signing and Congress ratifying a treaty in 2010.
So despite the fact that the lame duck may likely choose to forget that it can still quack, there is great optimism in Poznan. In the face of the greatest challenge to humankind, optimism is key. It is the essential spark to light the lamp by which the assembled nations do their work.