Taking the Wind Out of the Sails For a Legally Binding Climate Agreement

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Janet Redman, Director of the Institute for Policy Studies’ Climate Change Program, says the UN Climate Summit was a preview of how the private sector will drive the agenda during the next round of official negotiations on climate change

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

On Tuesday, President Obama spoke at the United Nations Climate Summit in New York City.

To discuss Obama’s announcement and what impact these new actions might have in reducing climate change, we’re joined by Janet Redman. She’s coming to us from New York City. Janet is the director of Climate Policy Program at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. She provides analysis on international financial institutions, energy investment, and carbon finance activities.

Welcome back to The Real News, Janet.

JANET REDMAN, DIRECTOR OF CLIMATE POLICY PROGRAM, IPS: Thank you very much for having me back on.

PERIES: So, Janet, give us your take on President Obama’s speech at the United Nations.

REDMAN: Well, I think it was, of course, really important for him to be there. I’m glad that our president was among the heads of state that spoke to address the climate change problem and to really give weight to the issue that’s impacting so many people and so many communities here in the United States, but also, of course, around the world.

To be honest, I was fairly disappointed with the tone of his speech in some ways and much of the content of what he presented at the UN. While I found it, I guess, encouraging that he’s taking this issue seriously and understanding that it’s integral to our survival and future generations’ that we address climate change now in this generation, I found his solutions to be quite lacking. He talked about driving cleaner cars, for example. He spoke about helping entrepreneurs in Africa with clean energy. But he didn’t really get into the content of what he has been doing domestically, what his administration has been doing domestically here, or the kinds of projects and programs that the Obama administration has been supporting abroad or is planning to support abroad. I think most importantly he took a lot of the wind out of the sails of a call that many of us have been making for a legally binding greenhouse gas emission reduction agreement by the end of next year in Paris, in 2015, as part of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. He’s been saying things like we need flexibility so every country can react according to its own circumstances, when in fact what we really need is every country to come on board in a legally binding way to reduce their emissions quickly and deeply, as the science demands. And that was missing from his speech yesterday.

PERIES: And I understand further that he was actually making some backroom deals, according to your article, at the UN with the oil producers and corporations.

REDMAN: Well, it wasn’t really backroom deals. Unfortunately, the nature of this particular summit is outside of the official negotiating space. So what the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, did was try to, in some ways, relieve the pressure of the negotiating spaces that happen–those climate talks happen at the end of every year, and those are official negotiating spaces. That’s where heads of state talk to each other about how they’re going to take collective action on climate change. In some ways, what Ban Ki-moon was trying to do, ostensibly, was take the pressure out of that conversation by having an unofficial set of talks yesterday. He really opened up the podium and said, here’s a chance for heads of state to talk about bold action they’re going to take, either reducing emissions in their own countries or in helping provide finance to developing countries to support their work moving to low-carbon renewable energy and climate-resilient economies.

But what it also did was create spaces where heads of state were sitting literally at the same table as some of the dirtiest corporations on the planet. You had–a private-sector luncheon was called that Ban Ki-moon held in the UN, where you literally had companies like Barclays, who’s been responsible for large dams, companies like McDonald’s who have had human rights violations alleged against them for the kinds of land-grabbing and forest destruction for their where they source meat products. So you’ve got a problem when you’ve got an unofficial space that’s really right out in public where corporations are starting to drive the agenda. And, in fact, one of the previews of what was going to happen there was that corporations [incompr.] going to tell governments how the governments could support the private sector to act, as opposed to what really should be happening, where the people are demanding action from their own governments [incompr.] governments react to meet the needs of people, not to meet the needs of corporate actors.

PERIES: Now, we know that strategy hasn’t worked; since Kyoto, we’ve been trying to have corporations at the table to discuss and address some binding agreements for nation-states, but that hasn’t worked. Now, to Obama’s credit, I suppose, he is one of the first presidents of the United States that are actually openly admitting to climate change as a problem. But what could he have done, in your opinion, that would have been sort of more honest in terms of a leading solution to the crises as a carbon-emitting–number-one carbon-emitting country?

REDMAN: Certainly. Well, of course, other presidents have admitted that climate change is happening, just not in recent history.

So Obama could have been a number of things here. And this is kind of true to course of, unfortunately, what’s happened in his administration, where many of the initiatives that Obama has announced–for example, Obama’s climate action plan last summer, when he announced a number of programs that were going to happen on, for example, renewable energy on federal lands, actions on resilience in communities. And many of those programs were already in the works anyway.

The same thing is kind of true looking at his clean-power plans. That’s the proposed guidelines that the EPA released earlier this year to reduce emissions from greenhouse gases from power plants. It’s the first of its kind. It’s very historic in that sense. We’ve never had a rule that would specifically look at carbon emissions from power plants, as opposed to other pollutants. But, unfortunately, what that plan does is allow much of business as usual to go forward–not business as usual as we see today, so not the kinds of coal plants that had been in the works for a long time, but the plan was designed so that states could do what they were going to do anyway, and we just those emissions and call that our contribution to the global work of stopping climate change.

What we really needed to see the president talk about here–and, I think, what we absolutely need to see the president talk about as we move into official negotiating space–is to put some numbers on the table about what we’re willing to commit to in terms of cutting emissions. Climate scientists say that developing countries need to cut between 25 to 40 percent of their greenhouse gas emissions economy-wide by 2020 and between 50 and 80 percent by 2050 in order to meet a safe threshold so we don’t go over a tipping point into climate chaos. But the clean power plan, as the EPA lays it out now, gets us nowhere near that. In fact, it only regulates 40 percent of our economy. So we’re missing 60 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions that are totally unregulated. I would have liked to have seen some more concrete commitments to economy-wide emission reductions, and a specific commitment of financing through the Green Climate Fund, which is an institution that was set up to help support developing countries move to low emissions and climate-resilient development pathways–I would have liked to have seen a concrete commitment to that fund as well.

PERIES: And, Janet, what do you think of the World Bank’s and now the UN’s supporting carbon pricing as one of the solutions to address carbon emission?

REDMAN: That’s a tricky subject, I think, actually. The idea of putting a price on carbon pollution, much like putting a fine on pollution, is that we actually don’t quantify economically what it means to pollute. We don’t internalize the costs of carbon pollution into the way we make economic decisions. So the idea of putting a price on carbon in some ways seems very interesting, because we’re saying actually we’re going to value the cost to our economy of the climate chaos, basically, that those carbon emissions cause, by putting a price on that carbon up front before the disaster hits, and as a way to discourage corporations and countries from releasing carbon into the atmosphere.

The problem is that carbon pricing and the way that the World Bank has played it in the past has really led us down the path of carbon markets and carbon trading. And that’s the idea that you can actually make an asset, basically, out of a carbon emission. You can say each ton of carbon is worth this much money. I’ve got a piece of paper that says, I have the right to pollute this much, and I can actually trade those around. So if I can’t or I don’t want to reduce emissions from my power plant–it’s too expensive for me to do so, or it cuts into my bottom line–I can pay someone somewhere else to reduce their emissions. And that’s become very problematic in a number of ways. We’ve actually seen this in the Europeans’ emissions trading system, their carbon-trading system. It hasn’t worked to reduce emissions. It hasn’t changed the behaviors of fossil fuel industries are other industries that use fossil fuels and emit greenhouse gases. And it actually hasn’t–it’s very, very hard to see where it’s done the work of reducing emissions in other locations. So that trading has been easy to game by the industry. The policies that have set up this, the carbon trading system, have largely failed. So I’m very nervous about the idea of that being the way that we think about internalizing the price of carbon pollution into our economic decisions.

PERIES: Let’s take a look at another clip of President Obama speaking at the UN Climate Summit, talking about international U.S. initiatives.

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OBAMA: And that’s why, since I took office, the United States has expanded our direct adaptation assistance eightfold, and we’re going to do more. Today, I’m directing our federal agencies to begin factoring climate resilience into our international development programs and investments. And I’m announcing a new effort to deploy the unique scientific and technological capabilities of the United States, from climate data to early-warning systems. So this effort includes a new partnership that will draw on the resources and expertise of our leading private-sector companies and philanthropies to help vulnerable nations better prepare for weather-related disasters and better plan for long-term threats like steadily rising seas.

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PERIES: So President Obama just talked about building global resilience to climate change. What did you think about that proposal?

REDMAN: I think that’s a great proposal. I think for a long time our development dollars, our development assistance, has not really taken account of what the impacts of climate change will actually be on the work of development moving forward. And, in fact, as the World Bank itself as reported, climate change is an incredible threat to the future development of many countries in the Global South. But it actually also threatens the development thresholds they have reached. So I think it’s very important that Obama is making this a central part of development assistance.

I am concerned, however, that part of logic of development assistance right now is that we’re still providing financing for fossil fuels in many countries, and for other kinds of dirty energy projects, like agricultural sector biofuels, so large palm oil plantations, for example, large mega-dams that displace communities and actually emit greenhouse gases, as the reservoirs are flooding forestland, for example. So I think it’s critical that Obama is directing our federal agencies to take climate-change impacts and resilience to climate-change impacts into account in its financing of projects. But it will be even more critical not to finance the kinds of projects that lead to greenhouse gas emissions, that actually exacerbate the climate-change problem. And then, of course, communities have to become more resilient to those impacts. So there has to be some consistency between those directives within the financing community, the host of financing organizations within the U.S. government.

PERIES: And finally, Janet, in order for President Obama to live up to some of what he talked about at the United Nations, he’s going to have to be able to lead within the nation, and on the Hill as well. What’s going on on the Hill in terms of supporting a proposal for climate change, for addressing climate change?

REDMAN: Well, as you can imagine, it’s very challenging right now on the Hill. There are a number of congressional leaders who I think understand aspects of climate change. I think there are many who actually believe climate change is happening and we have to address it. And, unfortunately, the political conditions in Congress right now are keeping many people, I think, who would otherwise be active and are concerned, quiet.

Partly what needs to happen is that those of us in civil society need to create the conditions so that congresspeople can speak openly about their concerns on climate change and start working on the policies to address climate change. So some of the policies that are out there, of course, are around financing renewable energy. There’ll be a lot of work around renewable portfolio standards, vehicle standards.

I think that right now, however, we’re in some ways, you know, mounting a defensive battle, where there are lawmakers who’d like to tie the hands of the federal government, who certainly want to tie the hands of the Environmental Protection Agency to act on regulating greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. So, largely [our fight’s (?)] right now [incompr.] Congress, unfortunately. And we’ll see if that landscape changes in the near future. I think the reality is, as we see increasingly the impacts of climate change here in our own country and put the dots, connect the dots between things like almost unending wildfires in the West, in the western part of our country, and the kinds of disasters and extreme weather we saw in New York and New Jersey with Superstorm Sandy together as [incompr.] being climate change impacts specifically. I hope that political will will shift in Congress, as well as in the public mindset.

PERIES: Janet, thank you so much for joining us.

REDMAN: Thank you so much for having me on.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Janet, you wrote about this all-of-the-above energy plan that is problematic. I understand that the natural gas industry won an intense lobby battle on September 10 at the U.S. Department of Energy when it approved two more export terminals for liquefied gas. What do you think of that?

REDMAN: Well, I think that’s actually pretty indicative of a larger problem with this all-of-the-above energy strategy that the White House has been pushing since they’ve been in power. And it’s really enshrined, unfortunately, in the proposed EPA guidelines regulating greenhouse gas emissions from power stations. And the Clean Power Plan it’s called.

So there are four pieces of that plan. Two of them are great. It’s about energy efficiency, both at the supply side and the demand side, on making our homes and our offices and our schools more energy efficient.

But there are two pieces that are really problematic. The first piece talks about shifting to lower emissions, lower-polluting fuels. So that basically says that we can shift from coal to natural gas, for example, as a less polluting form of fossil fuel. That’s problematic because, of course, the way at this point that the U.S. government measures pollution doesn’t take into account some of the most polluting parts of the natural gas process. So the fracking of natural gas actually is thought to release an intense amount of methane, which is a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. So potentially it’s an even dirtier kind of fuel than coal is. And coal is phasing out anyway. What that does is lock us into fossil fuel energy for decades. That infrastructure is built under this power plan, and we’re not doing the work of moving to actually truly renewable, clean renewable energy.

So the second piece of the [incompr.] is around shifting to renewable energy and nuclear power. Right off the bat, nuclear power, while it may be a low-carbon fuel, is not a clean fuel. Of course, it’s incredibly toxic to mine for uranium. And we have no idea what to do with the waste from nuclear facilities. So right off the bat [incompr.] that’s [incompr.] even if it’s wonderful for the climate problem, if it’s going to hurt communities and people on our planet in other ways, that should be off the table.

Then there’s an even more subtle problem with the Clean Power Plan, and that’s the concept of all of the above. And that’s counting kind of all of the above renewables. So solar, wind, and many forms geothermal, tide energy, those are wonderful forms of renewable energy done at the right scale. And we always advocate for distributed scale, so community-scale energy, recognizing, that it of course has to be utility-scale for our many forms of energy as well. But right now, the administration is counting some pretty spurious forms of energy as renewable. So, for example, burning trash is considered renewable energy. It counts under many renewable energy portfolio standards. So the kinds of waste incineration plants that communities have been fighting in some places for generations because of the toxic emissions that they release into the community can now be given a new life, because it’s called waste energy and it’s considered renewable energy.

So those are the kinds of problems with an all-of-the-above strategy of we’re not thinking holistically about both the climate problem, but, more broadly, about environmental and human health. That to me is a real concern, because the environmental community itself has not necessarily looked at the breadth of the issues there.

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