New Zealand Successfully Curbing Carbon

At a time when neighboring Australia is getting ready to launch a national program to reduce carbon emissions, officials from New Zealand report a similar project in their own country is meeting with early success.  Adopted in its current form about one year ago, New Zealand’s emissions reduction program has already helped the island nation cut carbon while encouraging renewable energy and reversing deforestation.

New Zealand is currently the only major economy outside of Europe with a comprehensive national carbon policy.  Based on a cap and trade model, New Zealand’s carbon program has successfully started to reduce emissions of the main gases that cause climate change.  The policy is also helping New Zealand meet its obligation to reduce carbon emissions under the Kyoto Protocol.

Some of the most noticeable impacts of New Zealand’s carbon policy have been in the forestry sector.  This isn’t surprising, because emissions from forestry were the first to be regulated at a national level.  Back in 2008 the New Zealand government began forcing forestry operations to pay for carbon emissions, providing an incentive to avoid unsustainable deforestation.

The effect on New Zealand’s forests has been noticeable.  In 2007 the country was experiencing a net loss in forest cover of 16,000 hectares annually.  Today New Zealand’s forest cover is actually growing, as the amount of land re-planted with trees each year outstrips the area of forest loss.  This is good news not only for the climate, but for the unique plants and animals that call New Zealand’s forests home.

In the summer of 2010 New Zealand’s carbon reduction policy expanded to include other sectors of the economy—namely industry, energy, and transportation.  That was also the year the current version of the national carbon trading program went into effect.  One year later, polluting companies covered by the program are successfully cutting their carbon emissions.  A recent government report found that only 2% of polluters were failing to comply with the law.

In the year since the national carbon policy went into effect, no major new fossil fuel infrastructure has been built in New Zealand, ending years of growth in polluting energy.  Meanwhile 1,340 megawatts of renewable energy capacity are being added to the grid—an encouraging sign of a trend toward cleaner energy sources.  The national carbon policy is credited with have helped trigger this shift.

News of New Zealand’s successful carbon policy could hardly have come at a better time, as it provides a measure of reassurance for policymakers in nearby Australia.  The Australian government seems set to pass its own climate policy, which will start out as a tax on carbon and shift to a cap and trade program a few years out.  Australia’s trading program could eventually be linked to New Zealand, a move that lawmakers in both countries hope to encourage.

Outside of New Zealand and Australia, countries in the European Union have been participating in a carbon trading program for years.  Other major polluters, however, have been slow to adopt this or any other comprehensive strategy for curbing emissions.

In 2010 the United States failed to pass a national climate policy supported by President Obama.  China has plans to experiment with carbon trading at a regional level, but has yet to implement a comprehensive national climate policy.  Other large economies from India to Japan have made varying levels of commitment to reduce their carbon emissions, but so far lack a dependable mechanism for doing so.

The success of New Zealand’s climate policy may have a ripple effect that extends far beyond the small island country’s borders.  Though especially relevant for Australia, policymakers in other countries could also learn from New Zealand’s progress.  If they study New Zealand’s experiences thoroughly, they may discover cutting the emissions responsible for climate change isn’t quite so hard, after all.

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Australia Unveils Plan for Carbon Tax

On Sunday Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard (left) unveiled a proposed policy to curb the country’s carbon emissions and trigger a shift to clean energy.  The legislation, which is believed to have enough votes to pass the Australian parliament, would go into effect next year and begins by putting a tax US$25 per tonne on carbon.  In 2015 the carbon tax would be replaced by a nation-wide cap-and-trade program.

The new climate policy has won support from Gillard’s Labor Party, as well as the Australian Greens and enough independent lawmakers to make its passage later this year very near certain.  The carbon tax concept is a cornerstone of the Green Party’s legislative agenda, and Gillard’s decision to pursue it helped her win support from the Greens in forming a new government after last year’s elections. 

Though Australia’s small population means its contribution to global warming is much smaller than that of the US, China, or Europe, Australians have one of the highest per-capita carbon footprints of any nation in the world.  That’s largely because of the country’s heavy reliance on coal for electricity generation.  About 80% of Australia’s electricity comes from coal-fired power plants, compared to 50% in the United States.  The country is also a major supplier of coal exports to China and other developing nations.

If Australia is going to shift from fossil fuels to clean energy sources that contribute little or nothing to climate change, a price on carbon will almost certainly be needed.  The Gillard government’s carbon tax is a step in that direction.  And though it doesn’t satisfy all the concerns of environmentalists, it could mark a turning point in Australian climate policy. 

The tax will be levied on Australia’s 500 biggest carbon emitters—those that produce 25,000 tonnes or more of carbon per year.  Agriculture, forestry operations, and most automobiles are exempt.  The amount of the tax represents another compromise with polluters, as it isn’t as high as a panel of experts recommended earlier this year.  However over the next nine years the tax is expected to cut carbon emissions by 159 million tonnes.  In addition it may prompt utilities to retire the nation’s dirtiest coal plants early. 

To minimize the impact on consumers, the Australian government is passing tax cuts elsewhere for middle and low-income households.  Some of the revenue generated from the carbon tax will also go toward rebates for consumers. 

The ultimate goal of the new climate policy is to reduce yearly carbon emissions in Australia to 5% below 2000 levels by the year 2020.  This pales in comparison with the UK’s goal of cutting emissions 50% below 1990 levels by 2025.  But it is one of the first examples of a comprehensive climate policy in any country outside of Europe.  New Zealand is the only other non-European nation with a national carbon tax or cap-and-trade program, though several US states have such policies in place. 

The debate over Australia’s carbon tax was long and vigorous, and for months it was unclear whether Gillard’s government would successfully pass a climate policy at all.  The powerful coal, steel, and airline industries came out against the legislation, and were joined by climate change deniers and anti-tax groups.  But organizations like the progressive group GetUp argued a carbon tax will spur economic development in clean energy, and protect Australians from the devastating effects of climate change.

In March hundreds of people rallied against the carbon tax, joining protests in most of the country’s major cities.  Their numbers were overwhelmed by the thousands of Australians who rallied for a carbon tax less than two months later, in early June.  10,000 pro-climate activists rallied in Melbourne alone, with smaller groups in cities across the continent.

As Australia’s new climate policy goes into effect, it will almost certainly inspire other nations to take the idea of pricing carbon more seriously.  As major carbon emitters like the US, China, and Japan decide what to do about climate change, the may well take inspiration Australia’s decision to pursue a carbon tax.  

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Al Gore Criticizes Government and Media on Climate Change

In a 7,000-word essay featured in Rolling Stone’s July edition, former presidential candidate and famed environmentalist Al Gore censured the American government and news media for failing to combat big business and right-wing lobbyists who blur the facts about global warming.

The essay, aptly dubbed “Climate of Denial,” likens the debate surrounding climate change to a scripted wrestling match, with the media acting as referee. Gore paints the dispute as a “tag-team match, a real free-for-all,” pinning “Science and Reason” against  “Poisonous Polluters and Right-wing Ideologues.”

But he argues that the match is not even, with media scrutiny aimed at scientists who support global warming, rather than negate it, for fear of losing conservative viewers. He specifically calls out Fox News, a popular right-wing news station, for distorting facts and “cheerleading” the creation of doubt about climate change.

“A Fox News executive, in an internal e-mail to the network’s reporters and editors that later became public,” wrote Gore, “questioned the ‘veracity of climate change data’ and ordered the journalists to ‘refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question.’”

Gore went on to blame the consumerism involved with news and politics for protecting the interests of the wealthy, rather than the public. Needing supporters to create a financial backbone, news networks and political candidates alike rely on big business for contributions. Smaller groups representing the average American often get pushed aside.

“Almost every group organized to promote and protect the ‘public interest’ has been backpedaling and on the defensive,” he said. “By sharp contrast, when a coalition of powerful special interests sets out to manipulate U.S. policy, their impact can be startling — and the damage to the true national interest can be devastating.”

Yet while the majority of Gore’s essay focuses on the news media, he also takes on politicians, particularly President Barack Obama, who kowtow to pressure from big business lobbyists.

Though he lauds Obama for appointing strong environmental advocates to crucial federal offices and for publicly connecting environmental security to national security, Gore criticizes the president for failing to lead the nation against climate change.

“President Obama has never presented to the American people the magnitude of the climate crisis,” said Gore. “He has simply not made the case for action. He has not defended the science against the ongoing, withering and dishonest attacks. Nor has he provided a presidential venue for the scientific community — including our own National Academy — to bring the reality of the science before the public.”

However, the Obama camp has not been silent facing these accusations. In response to the criticism, White House press officer Clark Stevens defended Obama’s record and tactics in a written statement.

“The president has been clear since Day 1 that climate change poses a threat domestically and globally, and under his leadership we have taken the most aggressive steps in our country’s history to tackle this challenge,” said Stevens.

Despite the sharp disapproval Gore aims at media and government, he ends on a positive note, telling concerned readers how to combat climate change. He advises citizens to advocate the truth about climate change, to make informed consumer choices, to join environmentalist organizations, and to pressure local news channels, papers, and politicians to resist special interests’ intimidation.

And finally, he counsels, “don’t give up on the political system. Even though it is rigged by special interests, it is not so far gone that candidates and elected officials don’t have to pay attention to persistent, engaged and committed individuals. President Franklin Roosevelt once told civil rights leaders who were pressing him for change that he agreed with them about the need for greater equality for black Americans. Then, as the story goes, he added with a wry smile, ‘Now go out and make me do it.’”

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California High School Required to Teach Skeptical Views on Global Warming

Earlier this month, the Los Alamitos Unified School District announced a decision that will require its schools to include both liberal and conservative views on global warming in their curriculum. The decision is focused on Los Alamitos High School, which wants to implement a new Advanced Placement environmental science class in fall 2011.

Annually, teachers will be required to present a teaching plan to the school board before teaching the AP class, explaining how they intend to teach the class to ensure that it is politically balanced. School board members, who unanimously approved the measure with a 4-0 vote, believe that plans to teach controversial issues should be reviewed by the board. Conservative board member Jeffrey Barke explained that the goal is to provide balance in the classroom: “Most teachers are left to center, and if we leave it to teachers to impose their liberal views, then it would make for an unbalanced lesson,” he said. Furthering these comments, Los Alamitos Unified Assistant Superintendent Sherry Kropp said, “There are many issues regarding the environment that have become politicized these days and we want kids to be exposed to all sides.” Controversial issues are defined as topics that have more than one widely held view.

Administrators believe that AP Environmental Science is a good alternative AP course for students to take, and Kropp hopes that offering the class will help the district achieve its goal of having “every high school student complete at least one AP course,” explaining that “this is a good [AP course] to take because it is not heavily math-based.” The AP course is already a popular class in high schools across the state, with a statewide enrollment of more than 15,000 students in the 2008-2009 school year. Among the topics covered in the course are evolution, biodiversity, pollution, population dynamics, ozone depletion, health and toxicity.

The textbook used for the class, called “Living in the Environment”, approaches climate change in a manner that asks students to analyze how global warming contributes to species extinctions, as well as why these divisive issues are controversial. Textbooks and teachers, Barke believes, are biased, and to eliminate this bias, classrooms must incorporate all facets of a widely debated issue. Administrators are concerned that teachers, the majority of whom are moderate or liberal, will color the global warming debate with their own bias, imposing their personal views on the class’s curriculum.

Despite a growing social trend toward environmentalism and eco-friendly attitudes, Americans’ skepticism regarding global warming has increased. An annual poll by Gallup last year showed that nearly half of Americans believe that global warming isn’t a threat. Forty-eight percent of Americans believe that the global warming debacle is exaggerated, the poll says. That number has been on the rise in the past 15 years – in 1997, 31 percent of Americans believed that climate change was exaggerated, compared to 41 percent in 2009. In comparison, the 2010 poll concluded that 53 percent of responders think that global warming is real and that its effects are or will be serious. The US is not the only country where climate skepticism is on the rise – the percentage of British adults who believe that global warming is a definite threat has declined from 44 to 31 percent in recent years.

Los Alamitos Unified School District encompasses a small community on the border of Los Angeles and Orange counties in Southern California. Texas and South Dakota schools are also required to incorporate both sides of the climate change debate in their classrooms, though this is likely the first time a California public school has seen a mandate to address and teach climate skepticism in the classroom.

UK Announces Ambitious Green Deal

Cabinet ministers in the United Kingdom are announcing a “green deal” that would dramatically cut carbon emissions from one of Europe’s largest economies and position the UK to be a worldwide leader in the fight against climate change.  The legally binding agreement is intended to put the UK on-track to reduce carbon emissions 80% below 1990 levels by the year 2050, and 60% by 2030.  It is designed to make the UK one of the most green energy-friendly countries in the world, in preparation for a future when 40% of the nation’s power will come from renewable sources by the year 2030.

The agreement comes at a time when the climate and energy policy of Prime Minister David Cameron has come under increasing fire from environmental groups.  Cameron, who took office just over a year ago, said around the time he became prime minister that he would create the “greenest government ever” in the UK.  Cameron promised large-scale investments in renewable energy and deep cuts in carbon emissions.  Yet in the last year Cameron’s government has backtracked on issues like support for clean energy programs and protecting ecosystems that serve as natural carbon sinks.  Just last week, leading green groups in the UK sent a letter to Cameron urging him to re-focus on his pledge.

“Our view is that your Government started with a strong sense of purpose on the environment but is now in danger of losing its way,” wrote official representatives of groups like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Oxfam, and the Green Alliance.  “Getting back on track will require strong leadership from you and your colleagues.”

It remains to be seen if the UK’s environmental organizations will be fully convinced that that the new “green deal” is the kind of strong leadership they are looking for.  Yet the news so far looks promising, and Cameron’s government appears to have taken the concerns of green leaders to heart.  Cameron himself weighed in to break a stalemate between energy secretary Chris Huhne on one side, and business secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne on the other.  While Huhne was strongly supportive of an ambitious green plan, Cable and Osborne opposed the idea and argued it would be bad for the economy.

Cameron’s interjection apparently helped tip the debate toward an ambitious green plan, and it turns out the UK economy may actually be a winner in the deal.  In the past year, uncertainty as to whether UK energy policy will focus on renewables has shifted the country from the third most attractive nation for renewable energy investments to the thirteenth.  The green plan should help the UK reclaim its place as a sought-after destination for renewable energy business, and help attract companies that create hundreds or thousands of jobs. 

The green deal also returns the UK to playing a leadership role in the international community’s fight against climate change.  According to the UK Guardian, which was one of the first major media outlets to report on the deal, it is the first national-level agreement in any industrialized country that sets legally binding targets for reducing carbon emissions past the year 2020.  “The package will require sweeping changes to domestic life, transport and business,” said the Guardian, “and will place Britain at the forefront of the global battle against climate change.”

A far-reaching climate plan in the UK could also prompt other nations to take similar action.  Countries like the United States, Australia, and Canada have yet to pass any comprehensive climate strategy at all, and could benefit from having the example of a strong green plan to look to.  In this sense the UK’s green deal could have a ripple effect that reaches far beyond its own national boundaries.  It could even be a critical stepping stone toward the kind of global action needed to avert the worst effects of climate change.

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New US Report Highlights Urgency of Climate Action

A committee of scientists, business leaders, and policy experts, formed by Congress in 2009  to look at how the US could confront the challenge of climate change, has released a report highlighting the urgent need for the United States to curb the carbon emissions responsible for global warming.  The committee, which is part of the National Research Council, has warned that rapid action is needed to avoid climate shifts that will be both dangerous and likely irreversible.

According to the new report, which is titled “America’s Climate Choices,” it makes most sense to start dramatically curbing greenhouse emissions now, because the longer climate change goes unmitigated the more difficult it will be to stop.  The committee noted that many of the worst effects of climate change aren’t likely to make themselves felt until years after carbon emissions have already been released into the atmosphere.  By that time it will be too late to do anything, so waiting to see how bad the problem gets before acting to prevent it is not a viable option.

“The goal of the America’s Climate Choices studies is to ensure that climate decisions are informed by the best possible scientific knowledge, analysis, and advice, both now and in the future,” said committee chair Albert Carnesale, chancellor emeritus and professor at the University of California in Los Angeles.

The new report also re-examines the evidence for climate change, concluding that human activities like the burning of fossil fuels are indeed to blame for recent planetary warming trends.  Neither natural variation in the Earth’s atmosphere nor sunspots and other types of solar activity can explain decades of warming that have led to melting ice caps and glaciers, rising sea levels, and other changes in the world around us.

Perhaps most important of all, “America’s Climate Choices” makes some general recommendations for how the US can still avoid the worst effects of climate change.  The authors note that comprehensive federal polices which compliment state and local efforts will be needed to make the kind of cuts in greenhouse emissions required.  Though it doesn’t endorse specific policies, the report does point out that putting some kind of price on carbon would be an effective way to reduce the burning of fossil fuels.  It also recommends devoting more research to green technologies, and urges the US take a leadership role in international climate change negotiations.

Most of the findings of the National Research Council do not sound particularly new; in fact leading climate scientists have been calling for deep cuts in greenhouse emissions and a shift to low-emissions technologies for years.  However the report is significant partly because it is a completely US-based effort, and backs up the most important findings of other major research bodies, such as the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  The report’s conclusions also serve as a reminder that the scientific evidence for climate change is as real as it ever was, if not more so.

Yet sweeping policies to curb greenhouse emissions will not likely be enacted by the federal government during the next couple years, as many members of Congress are opposed to the idea and even doubt that global warming exists.  Republicans and conservative-leaning Democrats in Congress are not just blocking climate legislation from moving forward, but are actively trying to dismantle existing laws like the Clean Air Act that could wean the US off fossil fuels.  Some, like Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, claim climate change is actually a hoax concocted by an international network of scientists intent on controlling the world.

The doubts of politicians aside, “America’s Climate Choices” serves as both a reminder that the threat of catastrophic global warming is still with us, and a practical guide to addressing the problem.  Though the current Congress is unlikely to implement the report authors’ suggestions, these recommendations may be more closely headed by future political leaders who want to address the most important environmental challenge the country has ever faced. 

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Lawsuits Filed to Protect Today’s Youth from Climate Change

In what could be a groundbreaking approach to using the legal system to prompt action on climate change, attorneys are in the process of filing lawsuits in every state in the US, on behalf of young people whose futures will be affected by global warming.  The effort, which is moving forward in courts in all fifty states as well as the District of Columbia, is a project of the youth-focused climate action group iMatter and its partner organizations.  If attorneys fighting on behalf of their young plaintiffs are successful, they could establish the atmosphere as a legally recognized “public trust” that cannot be overloaded with greenhouse gases by one generation at the expense of all future generations.

According to the public trust doctrine—a legal concept that dates back to the days of the Roman Empire and which was recognized in England under the charter of the Magna Carta—certain public resources must be left accessible to everyone and can not be privatized for use by only a relatively small segment of the population.  The US Supreme Court validated the public trust concept in the United States in an 1892 case, involving use of the Chicago harbor. 

In the late 1850s the Illinois Central Railroad had been given a large section of the harbor by the state legislature, precluding the waterway’s use for other purposes.  Eventually the tide of opinion turned against the giveaway, and the state government attempted to undo its own decision by arguing that privatization of such a huge resource was illegal.  In the 1892 court case Illinois Central Railroad v. Illinois, the Supreme Court ruled that a public trust like the navigable waters of the Chicago harbor could not be given away by the state government to a single company.  

This enshrined the public trust doctrine in US law, and opened the door to applying the concept to other public resources.  In more recent times public trust doctrine has been used to force industry to clean up water pollution, and many states refer to it as a guideline in regulating the use of natural resources.  Legal and environmental scholars have also suggested the doctrine could be used to guarantee protections for fisheries and other marine resources.  But trying to designate the entire atmosphere as a public trust is perhaps the most ambitious application of the concept so far.

By calling attention to the atmosphere’s role as a public resource which all people have a right to enjoy, and by using high school students and college-age young people as plaintiffs, iMatter and its partner organizations hope to underline the moral issues surrounding pollution of the atmosphere.  “No individual or corporation has the right to put as much carbon into the atmosphere as they want,” says a statement on the iMatter web site.  “And yet, that’s exactly what’s happening. The public trust law…says that common resources like water and air are held in trust by the government for the people and for future generations.”

Today’s young people stand to lose more than any other generation alive today in the face of continued climate change.  Rising sea levels, droughts that affect the productivity of agricultural lands, loss of global biodiversity, and increasingly frequent and severe storms will impact the youngest generation more than any other.  Environmental groups argue older generations have effectively commandeered the atmosphere for their own use at the expense of those will come after, just as the Illinois Central Railroad once attempted to appropriate the Chicago harbor to the exclusion of all other uses. 

Now lawsuits being filed all over the country will attempt to force polluters to clean up carbon emissions and leave a healthy atmosphere intact.  Though it is unlikely all these legal challenges will be successful, winning even a few would be a major victory and could mark the beginning of a new chapter in the fight to stop climate change.  It would establish a precedent for environmental groups to be able to sue companies and government entities for not doing enough to protect the global atmosphere. 

“We [young people] don’t have the money to compete with corporate lobbyists,” says the iMatter web site, “and we may not yet be able to vote, but we DO have a legal right to insist that the planet is protected for our future and for generations to come.”

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Shades of REDD: From Kyoto to Cancún

December 14, 2010

The contentious REDD proposal – Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation – has emerged from the UN Cancún Climate talks to be both lauded and criticised. REDD is backed by a diverse group of government, industry, and conservation leaders eager to slow down the deforestation that is estimated to account for one fifth of carbon dioxide escaping into the atmosphere. Robert Zoellick of the World Bank called the proposal, “one of the best chances we have, maybe one of the last chances we have, to really save our rich biodiversity.”

Opponents claim the REDD solution does not address the drivers of deforestation and allows polluters to buy their way out of binding agreements on CO2 emissions through carbon offsets or forest conservation stocks bought to sequester CO2 emissions.

The evolving concept of the REDD program was first introduced in 1997 under the umbrella of the Kyoto Protocol, the only legally binding climate change agreement for industrialized nations. All parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, including the 37 industrialized nations involved, agreed that drastic cuts in deforestation, mostly in developing countries, was critical to combating climate change. By 2007 the UN Bali Action Plan stated: “Parties should collectively aim at halting forest cover loss in developing countries by 2030 at the latest and reducing gross deforestation by at least 50% by 2020.”

Dividing the consensus for action was a disagreement in methodology, namely the financing of the REDD. Whether it was to be financed via government to government capacity building, UN funds, or by market funding and carbon offsets, remained to be seen.

This all changed with the controversial Copenhagen Accord, pushed through during the last moments of the 2009 conference. The Accord specifies the funding options: “We decide to pursue various approaches, including opportunities to use markets, to enhance the cost-effectiveness of, and to promote mitigation actions.” (Article 7) REDD’s evolution into a market based carbon offset system coincided with hitherto absent support from the United States.

Many indigenous groups and environmental NGO’s continue to oppose a market based version of the REDD agreement, saying it would allow companies to continue unimpeded polluting by purchasing stocks of forest carbon sinks. One such opponent of REDD is Anne Petermann of the Global Justice Ecology Fund. “REDD is being pushed by the U.S. as a way for industries to avoid cutting emissions at the source,” Anne said in an interview with Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman. “Industry is everywhere, environmental NGO’s are being increasingly marginalized, shut out, and ignored,” she added.

As REDD has evolved the ideologically gap surrounding climate change has widened. When asked about REDD at the Cancun talks Ecuadorian president Rafeal Corea said almost apologetically, “The market is a reality,” voicing the opinion of REDD supporters that this may be the only pragmatic solution. Those marching in the streets of Cancun were not persuaded. The international peasant farmer movement La Via Campesino mobilized a demonstration outside the police barriers. They claimed they were being sold false solutions. The march was attended by Bolivian ambassador to the UN, Pablo Solón, and Paraguayan delegate Miguel Lovera who said, “We need to reduce consumption, diminish greed and stop wasting the resources that are necessary for us all to live well, in order to revert the environmental crisis.”


Copenhagen Accord. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. 2009

Goodman, Amy. Democracy Now. 2010

Damien Carrington. Wikileaks Cables Reveal How U.S. Manipulated Climate Accord. The Guardian. Friday 3 December 2010

Kyoto Protocol. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. 1997

La Via Campesina. International Peasant Movement. 2010

Countries Agree to Non-Binding Climate Deal in Cancun

December 13, 2010

On Friday negotiators representing 193 countries agreed on text for a non-binding international climate agreement during a climate change conference in Cancun, Mexico.  The agreement reached in Cancun isn’t legally binding, and many countries as well as international environmental groups are sure to continue pushing for a stronger treaty.  However most countries represented at the climate meetings seem to feel the Cancun agreement is a step in the right direction.

From November 29th through December 10th, representatives of nearly 200 countries met in Cancun for the most important international climate meeting of the year—a follow-up to last year’s climate negotiations in Copenhagen, Denmark.  Most major environmental groups strongly criticized the Copenhagen meeting for failing to make significant progress toward a deal that takes into account the needs of countries and communities most vulnerable to climate change.  However on Friday as the Cancun meetings concluded, some of these same groups expressed cautious optimism that negotiations are again headed in the direction of a strong climate treaty.

A statement from Greenpeace, one of the world’s largest international environmental organizations, says, “Governments in Cancun, Mexico, have chosen hope over fear and put the building blocks back in place for a global deal to combat climate change. For the first time in years, governments put aside some major differences and compromised to reach a climate agreement.”

Major elements of the Cancun climate deal include agreements on how countries’ progress curbing carbon emissions will be made transparent, establishment of a fund to help developing countries adapt to climate change while building low-carbon economies, and an initiative aimed at curbing carbon emission from deforestation in developing countries.  If successfully implemented, the forest agreement could be a major breakthrough that helps reduce loss of global biodiversity in addition to curbing carbon emissions.  Worldwide deforestation is responsible for about 15% of greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.

Still, much work remains if the international community is going to eventually agree on a binding treaty ambitious enough to avert the worst effects of climate change.  It is unclear how soon the voluntary goals for reducing carbon emissions contained in the Cancun agreement might be translated into a legally binding treaty.  The targets laid out for reducing emissions and minimizing the increase global temperatures also fall far short of what climate scientists say is necessary. 

The Cancun agreement calls for limiting any global temperature increase to two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.  However a growing number of researchers warn more than a 1.5 degree temperature increase will be enough to trigger some of the worst impacts of climate change, including flooding of small island nations.  On Wednesday a coalition of small island countries called on world leaders to make 1.5 degrees Celsius the maximum acceptable global temperature increase.

Perhaps still more importantly, the pledges individual countries have made to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions are not enough to achieve even the two degree limit.  Added together, these pledges would reduce worldwide carbon emissions 16% below 1990 levels by the year 2020.  Scientists warn a 25-40% reduction is what is needed to stay below the two degree threshold, meaning countries must make much deeper emission cuts than those proposed so far.  US emission reduction goal is especially under-ambitious.  The United States has pledged to cut emission 17% below 2005 levels, which translates to only about 4% below its 1990 levels of emissions.

For these reasons, groups concerned about climate change in the US and elsewhere will continue pushing for stronger emission reduction targets at both national and international levels.  More ambitious commitments from the United States will be essential to eventually solidifying a climate treaty.  Still the ability of countries in Cancun to agree on some concrete steps has restored hope that an ambitious agreement can eventually be reached—at least if the United States becomes willing to take on a leadership role.

“The US needs to be a leader in providing climate solutions at home and abroad,” says Liz Butler of the US-based organization 1Sky.  “We call on President Obama to stand up and be the leader the world needs to solve the climate crisis, and to put all who will be impacted by the climate crisis above the politics of the moment.”

Photo credit: Mindaugas Danys

Global Cities Agree to Cut Carbon Emissions

November 23, 2010

On Sunday delegates from about 135 cities, including some of the world’s largest urban areas, signed an agreement to take tangible steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions and fight global warming.  The Mexico City Pact, named for the host city of this month’s World Mayors Summit on Climate, commits signatory local governments to setting goals for reducing emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and other activities that contribute to global warming, and to monitor results to ensure accountability.  Local officials hope the pact will stand as an example of how governments can work together to reduce global warming.

Mexico City, where the new agreement was forged, is already taking steps to reduce its own carbon footprint.  Mexico City is implementing a fifteen-year Green Plan, the goals of which include reducing greenhouse gas emissions 12% between 2008 and 2012.  Though Mexico City has become known as one of the most polluted cities in the Western Hemisphere, Mayor Marcelo Ebrard hopes the Green Plan will eventually transform it into a leader in local sustainability.  Steps the city plans to take to cut back on pollution and protect natural resources include promoting alternative transportation, preserving natural areas within the local government’s jurisdiction, and harnessing methane gas forming from a landfill to produce electricity.

Other local governments are also taking action to reduce carbon emissions, even as policymakers at the national level fail to agree on a treaty to curb global warming.  More than one thousand cities in the United States are signatories to the US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, and have agreed to reduce global warming pollution at the local level.  In other countries local governments are also taking the lead on climate initiatives.  Major cities from around the world that signed the Mexico City Pact include Paris, France; Johannesburg, South Africa; Bogota, Colombia; Buenos Aires, Argentina, and many others. 

Because urban areas are major consumers of energy, city governments have real power to affect global carbon emission levels by acting locally.  Collectively cities emit about 60% of the world’s annual greenhouse emissions while accounting for 80% of global energy demand.  As large numbers of people in the developing world move from rural areas into cities, the importance of local governments in fighting global warming is only likely to increase over time. 

Well-planned cities can help people live a low-carbon lifestyle while achieving a high quality of life, partly by providing public transportation options and situating homes close to stores and public services so as to make driving unnecessary.  However as any resident of the US suburbs knows, poorly planned or sprawling cities make reliance on the automobile all but inevitable while increasing residents’ dependence on oil and other fossil fuels.  With cities continuing to expand, local government leaders have an opportunity to try to grow in as environmentally responsible a manner as possible. 

Local government leaders plan to present the Mexico City Pact at the international climate negotiations in Cancun, Mexico which begin at the end of this month.  Though few observers expect the Cancun climate summit to produce a legally binding international climate treaty, signatories to the Mexico City Pact hope action from local governments will help spur major economies to take steps of their own that reduce global warming pollution.  In addition to committing local governments to reduce their own carbon footprint, the pact contains language urging national governments to agree on a global treaty to protect the climate. 

So far countries like the United States and China have found it difficult to agree on binding targets to cut worldwide greenhouse emissions.  But the coming together of cities from around the world that signed that Mexico City Pact shows cooperation to protect the climate that spans cultural and political boundaries is possible.  When world leaders do finally agree on an international climate deal, they will have slightly less work cut out for them thanks to the efforts of local governments intent on shrinking their carbon footprints now. 

Photo credit: Tjeerd Wiersma