The World Resources Institute Holds a Trilateral Dialogue on Climate Change

My first climate change adventure was to accompany my boss, Jake Schmidt, to a “Trilateral Dialogue” hosted by the World Resources Institute (WRI). The purpose of this reoccurring roundtable is to share knowledge and increase communication between NGOs from the world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases: the European Union, the United States, and China. WRI represented the US; E3G, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting sustainable development, represented the EU; and elite Tsinghua University spoke for China.

Right now, all eyes are on the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) 21st Congress of the Parties, to be held in Paris in 2015. For all the secrecy and insinuation surrounding climate negotiations, you would think climate change was a much sexier topic…

China remains obscure not only about its targets, but also its method of measuring CO2 output. Consistent with its historical position, it continues to insist on the intensity of emissions (rather than total emissions) as the appropriate ruler for tracking reductions in GHGs. Economic growth is still of paramount importance, and given its large expected GDP growth rate (7.5% over the next 10 years), it seems unlikely that Chinese officials will support an agreement capping total emissions. Another figure that remains shrouded in mystery is the year in which Chinese GHG emissions will peak. The representatives from Tsinghua said the year could be as late as 2030, with 10-11 billions tons of CO2. For comparison, this would be over 3 times the amount that the US would emit in 2030 should we reach our target, and 20-30% above China’s current emissions. The country’s already unbearable air quality, and the government’s promise to reduce emissions from coal, simply don’t square with such an increase in CO2 numbers. Of course, what’s in a peak year, one may ask? A tenuous number, it relies upon multiple uncertainties: GDP and population growth; composition of future energy sources; and technological feasibility of emissions reductions. Delaying “peak emissions” farther into the future buys China time and allows for weaker commitments.

Nick Mabey, the representative from E3G, made several interesting points about climate policy and progress in Europe. The darling of climate change negotiations, with the most aggressive policies to reduce emissions, the EU is halfway through setting its climate and energy policy to 2030 – and is expecting reductions of 80-90% below 1990 levels by 2030. Evidently, along with exquisite food and wine, Europeans also deliver on their climate promises.

However, not everything is “la vie en rose” on the other side of the Atlantic. Obstreperous Poland remains a big obstacle to climate progress, preferring no targets and no action. Nonetheless, energy security is becoming a more and more urgent matter. Russia’s status as a semi-belligerent nation and its recent ventures into neighboring territory should scare the EU into maturing its renewable energy technologies and building  energy partnerships with more peaceable and predictable allies. Due to the bear at its border, Ukraine has emerged as a willing participant to climate policy progress, increasing cooperation and pushing for more infrastructure for gas and electricity in the EU. Clearly, the geopolitical impacts of unreliable energy security have hit home.

Mabey reminded the attendees that as the EU has been pursuing emissions reductions most assiduously, future reductions will depend on deep, structural reforms rather than low-hanging fruit. While there is still much potential to reduce consumption through energy efficiency improvements, most policies will require changes that cut into the muscle of the low-carbon economy. The EU Emissions Trading System (ETS) will need to be adjusted, and conflicts between carbon trading, energy efficiency targets, and renewable portfolio standards will need to be smoothed. Furthermore, EU control over national energy policies requires reexamination, a contentious issue given that many EU member states do not welcome handing over control of such a sensitive issue to Brussels.

Once again, the trilateral dialogue echoed the same sentiment that has been heard at all climate change talks: no region or country wants to commit to binding reductions unless the others do so as well. The Chinese and EU delegates want to know how much the US can deliver and when, and their plans hinge on our dedication. The international community will be eagerly awaiting the fall of 2015 with the same question in mind: are the US’s promises redeemable? I sincerely hope that the package we bring to the City of Lights in the upcoming year sheds a bright and convincing path for others to follow.