Climate Change

D

June 2014

The Global Governance Report Card grades international performance in addressing today's most daunting challenges. It seeks to inspire innovative and effective responses from global and U.S. policymakers to address them.

grade

Subject

  • Excellent

    Understanding Climate Change Threats

    The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the scientific body comprised of climate scientists from around the world operating under the auspices of the United Nations, continued to synthesize scientific research on the threats and causes of global warming. In September 2013, the group released a working group report that identified a “carbon budget”—an approximate threshold of anthropogenic emissions. If emissions surpass this limit, the earth will likely warm more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit from a preindustrial baseline. If warming exceeds [PDF] that temperature, the panel warned of dangerous consequences, such as high sea-level rise and temperate volatility. The IPCC warned that this carbon budget was already over 50 percent depleted, and was on a trajectory to be completely consumed by 2045. The IPCC also affirmed with 95 percent confidence that the majority of warming that occurred between 1951 and 2010 was due to the observed rise in concentrations of anthropogenic greenhouse gas.

    However, general knowledge of climate change science in the United States, where public support for policy action is critical to global efforts, remained troubling. In April 2013, a Gallup poll underscored the problem: In contrast to the broad, published consensus of the scientific community, more than one-quarter of American adult respondents answered that “most scientists believe global warming is not occurring.” This disconnect continued to undercut U.S. policymakers’ ability to tackle climate change.

  • Poor

    Curbing Emissions and Promoting Low Carbon Development

    Reducing emissions and promoting low carbon development continued to be the central challenges to addressing climate change. Unfortunately, progress in these areas remained inadequate in 2013. This was particularly alarming given that, in May, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) logged measurements showing that average concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had exceeded four hundred parts per million. The measurement was symbolically significant as scientists believed it was the highest in the preceding three million years.

    On the international stage, the Kyoto Protocol’s second commitment period began on January 1, 2013, and elicited new emissions reduction targets from participating countries. However, the accord grew increasingly weak without pledges from major emitters like the United States (which had never signed the protocol) and Russia, Japan, and Canada (which dropped out in 2012). Moreover, countries failed to reach consensus to prepare for the critical 2015 UNFCCC conference in Paris, where international leaders hope to secure agreement on a treaty to succeed the protocol.

    Negotiators’ disagreements at the conference of the parties (COP) to the UNFCCC in Warsaw stemmed, in large part, from longstanding divisions between industrialized and developing countries There, the Group of Seventy-seven, a coalition of over 130 developing countries, announced a walk-out at 4am during negotiations on the question of compensation for loss and damages due to climate change. Ultimately, the developed and developing countries were unable to overcome their differences, though they did establish the Warsaw Mechanism for Loss and Damage to assist developing countries with emergency and disaster relief stemming from climate change–induced weather variability. This initiative may enable future progress by moderating some of the acrimony in advance of the critical 2015 COP in Paris, though some observers expressed concern that it will only distract from more central negotiations.

    The EU continued to lead mitigation efforts, pursuing more ambitious goals than the rest of the developed world in general. Having over-achieved [PDF] in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the first phase of the protocol, the EU was on track to more than fulfill its unilateral commitment to reduce emissions to 20 percent below the 1990 baseline by 2020. The EU achieved these reductions in part through the world’s most extensive emissions trading system [PDF] (ETS), though the economic recession on the continent also contributed to the reductions. Though the ETS continued to be plagued by a surplus of emissions permits in 2013, and the uptick in German coal use was concerning, EU members showed that it was feasible to enact ambitious policies that other countries could emulate.

    The United States and China did take small national steps to curb emissions. The White House’s Climate Action Plan specified a fresh approach to emissions reduction, and China made headway in green technologies and laying the foundations for emissions trading systems. In June 2013, President Obama and President Xi Jinping of China also agreed to mutual reductions in the production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) under the Montreal Protocol. It was unclear whether these reductions were additional to commitments these countries had previously made pursuant to the protocol. The elimination of U.S. and Chinese HFCs by 2050 promised to eliminate the equivalent of two years’ worth of all greenhouse gas emissions. This initiative set the stage for broader negotiations on phasing out HFCs among Group of Twenty countries (though objections from India ultimately delayed discussions on implementation in 2013). Overall, however, these actions alone will still not achieve the necessary reductions to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.

    Other countries and institutions undertook constructive efforts outside of the UNFCCC framework. At year’s end, the Climate and Clean Air Action Coalition of countries committed to reductions in the release of short-lived pollutants (e.g., black carbon and methane) into the atmosphere had grown in its initial eighteen months from six to thirty-eight member nations. It had also integrated an additional forty-four non-country participants, such as the Environmental Defense Fund and the World Bank. Donor countries pledged [PDF] roughly $60 million by the end of the year for the coalition, though the sum was relatively low. Also, as noted earlier, California signed an innovative pact with China’s National Development and Reform Commission in September—which other regional or local leaders could emulate in the future. Finally, a minor but still promising development came in July when the World Bank announced, as part of a broader commitment to pursue low-carbon development, that it would limit funding for new coal plants and recommit those resources to clean energy projects. Though the initial impact of this realignment may be small, it could set a positive precedent for international norms of development assistance that promote renewable energy.

  • Average

    Monitoring and Enforcing Emissions Cuts

    Throughout the year, multilateral mechanisms for monitoring implementation of emissions reductions targets remained functional, but unable to fill gaps in monitoring or actively enforce emissions cuts. Many developing countries, in particular, continued to lack the capacity to monitor and report on their emissions reductions.

    At the 2009 fifteenth COP to the UNFCCC in Copenhagen, countries consented to biannual reporting on their national commitments for emissions mitigation, their greenhouse gas inventories, and their progress to date. These reports would then be subjected to international review. The members of the UNFCCC formally endorsed this pledge-and-review system in the 2010 COP-16 Cancun Agreements. In June 2011, Annex I countries first published emissions reduction targets [PDF]. Then, at COP-17 in Durban, South Africa, developed countries agreed to make biennial submissions to the UNFCCC that would detail national implementation of their mitigation goals and emissions forecasts for 2020–2030. Throughout 2013, most countries submitted these reports in order to meet the January 1, 2014, deadline.

    Unfortunately, the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) under the Kyoto Protocol did not advance during the year. The CDM, which provides a means for industrialized countries to earn credits toward their own Kyoto targets by supporting emissions reduction projects in developing countries, has long been criticized for merely displacing the emissions without reducing overall emissions. Furthermore, the price of a carbon credit had plummeted to $0.82 by October 2013, undermining the CDM’s viability. Consequently, the CDM’s relevance beyond 2020 remained uncertain.

    Finally, enforcement of the Kyoto Protocol continued to be weak. Under the Kyoto Protocol compliance mechanism, a noncompliant party to the protocol must “make up the difference between its emissions and its assigned amount during the second commitment period, plus an additional deduction of 30 percent.” However, the consequences for breaking commitments remained minimal. Parties who fail to meet their emissions reduction targets can simply opt to renegotiate their future targets.

    Ultimately, major emitters’ lack of commitment to the protocol undermined monitoring mechanisms associated with it. The United States accounts for 17 percent of global emissions, while Japan, Russia, and Canada (which all withdrew from the second commitment period) cumulatively account for more than 29 percent of international greenhouse gas emissions. As a result, other countries had little motivation to adhere to international commitments.

  • Poor

    Financing Emissions Cuts and Adaptation

    International efforts to finance climate-change projects proved disappointing in 2013. The GCF, one of the primary mechanisms designed to channel annual commitments escalating to a combined $100 billion of public and private money by 2020, opened its headquarters in Songdo, South Korea on December 4. However, two months earlier, the GCF announced [PDF] that it would delay its initial fundraising process from the original timeframe of November 2013 to mid-2014. By December, observers expressed concern that the GCF might not be able to raise the necessary capital. Furthermore, uncertainty remained over whether developed countries’ commitments would be additional allocations, or merely redirect funds from other budgets for fighting climate change. Early indications suggested that developed countries were unlikely to meet new pledges. (Notably, South Korea, the host of the new fund, contributed the most to it—$40 million.)

    In particular need of funding are adaptation activities. Though overall financing for adaptation efforts has grown, it continued to be insufficiently prioritized in 2013 and represented only 17 percent of climate finance. A rare exception was the EU, which committed approximately $170 million [PDF] to multilateral adaptation funds (including the Least Developed Countries Fund, the Special Climate Change Fund and the Adaptation Fund). However, this merely underscored the extent to which other countries and institutions failed to prioritize climate change.

    Furthermore, the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage, which countries established at COP-19 in Warsaw, earned mixed reviews. The mechanism stipulates that developed countries will provide assistance to those developing countries most affected by climate change. Though many details of the mechanism remained unclear, some observers expressed concern that it would merely focus attention on the controversial question of historic responsibility for climate change rather than inspire cooperation to finance emissions reductions.

    One small bright spot emerged in April 2013 when the Multilateral Fund for the Implementation of the Montreal Protocol announced a major project [PDF] to furnish China, the largest producer and consumer of hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), with up to $385 million for the total eradication of its industrial production of ozone depleting substances and related greenhouse gas emissions.

  • Poor

    Adapting to Climate Change

    Adaptation efforts in 2013 lacked urgency. While China, the United States, and the European Union established plans to protect their own populations from climate change, assistance for poor countries that are most vulnerable to climate change calamities remained weak.

    On the whole, developed countries and other major economies only modestly contributed to the adaptation efforts of developing nations—most of which lack the capacity to do so sufficiently on their own. This was made tragically clear in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, the strongest storm to make landfall in recorded history. The scale of destruction and the chaotic response to it illustrated how vulnerable countries have not managed to build resilient systems that can function after extreme weather events—and underscored how unprepared national and international systems are to cope in the aftermath. And yet, one of the primary international initiatives set up to help developing countries increase their resilience, the Adaptation Fund, faced critical budget shortfalls but received minimal support from developed countries. Consequently, in October 2013, the Adaptation Fund announced that it would need to postpone projects in Mali, Cuba, Myanmar, and Uzbekistan.

    To address adaptation domestically, in November 2013, President Obama issued an executive order to better equip U.S. infrastructure to withstand climate change. The order represented an important recognition of the need for adaptation. Nevertheless, the directives—such as improving interagency cooperation and instructing agencies to take inventory of policies that affect watersheds and ecosystems—appeared superficial.

    In December 2013, China launched its first climate adaptation plan. The ambitious plan outlined initiatives for all major Chinese ministries to pursue and included improved early-warning detection, infrastructure updates, and bolstering protection of nature and wildlife. It even proposed innovative “weather-based financial instruments” to help small farmers hedge against extreme weather events. The extensive adaptation measures appeared promising, if faithfully implemented.

    Along the same lines, in April 2013 the European Commission adopted an EU strategy on adaptation to climate change, designed to strengthen climate resilience across the EU. The strategy called for all member states to develop comprehensive adaptation strategies and committed capacity-building funding for those countries that do so. Though both China’s and the EU’s plans were welcome preliminary steps to support adaptation, they were ultimately overshadowed by the international lack of support to provide adaptation assistance to developing countries.

  • Good

    Utilizing Carbon Sinks

    Natural carbon sinks—the planet’s oceans, soils, and forests—are critical resources for slowing the rise in the concentration of greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), the major UN framework established to preserve forests, continued to expand in 2013, and made several positive strides in moving from conception to implementation. Similarly, a parallel World Bank initiative, the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF) also merited praise.

    On January 10, 2013, the World Bank announced that Finland, Germany, and Norway had each committed to donate approximately $180 million to the FCPF. The FCPF, which the World Bank administers to aid developing countries in reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, aims to compensate developing countries for reducing global carbon dioxide emissions through the conservation of forests. As of December 2013, the FCPF had attracted $650 million in contributions [PDF], divided between $260 million allocated to the Readiness Fund and $390 million allocated to the Carbon Fund. Under the FCPF program, the government of Costa Rica and the World Bank also reached an agreement to provide compensation worth as much as $63 million to property owners that preserve forests.

    Elsewhere, implementation of the REDD framework continued to expand, despite concerns that the framework was not confronting the underlying causes of deforestation (e.g., expanding agriculture). Indeed, since 2004, Brazil—a pilot country for the REDD—has decelerated deforestation rates by 83 percent (although the record for the 2013 was less rosy). In July 2013, Vietnam became the first of forty-seven partner countries in the REDD initiative to advance to the second phase of greenhouse gas reduction through enhanced forest and land-use administration. In September, the Japanese Fund for Poverty Reduction, via the Asian Development Bank, committed $1.5 million to Vietnam in a grant to assist with payment for forestry environmental programs from 2014-2016. These were modest, but nevertheless set precedents that could catalyze further action.

    Finally, at COP-19 in Warsaw, negotiators reached agreement on several significant issues to enhance the REDD+ program—an extension of the original REDD framework. Specifically, negotiators found consensus on the broad regulation, funding, and country-wide systematization of the initiative. In Warsaw, UNFCCC members also established that all REDD+ projects comply with environmental and human rights standards to establish an international system for the monitoring, reporting, and verification of emissions mitigation from standing forests. Finally, the negotiators agreed to record baselines of current forest stocks to help quantify progress in forest conservation.

    At the same time, though oceans are estimated to have absorbed almost half of all carbon dioxide emissions in the preceding century, the past year saw no progress in developing a multilateral initiative to preserve oceanic capacity for carbon absorption.

Leader

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European Union

Pacific Islands Forum

Gold Star

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Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Most Improved

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None

Laggard

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China

United States

Truant

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Russia

Australia

Detention

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Canada

Class Evaluation

The EU earned the designation of class leader for its unprecedented funding and policies to address climate change.

In 2013, the EU continued to champion more robust action to replace the Kyoto agreement. At the same time, the EU committed to spend as much as 180 billion euros [PDF] (approximately $250 billion) over seven years on climate-related projects both in the EU and in developing countries to mitigate or adapt to climate change. Moreover, over the past year, EU countries continued to make progress in curbing their own emissions. Indeed, eight of the top ten countries that achieved greenhouse gas emissions targets and improved energy efficiency were part of the EU, underscoring the region’s dedication to fighting climate change. To be sure, some of the reduced emissions were attributed to the continent’s economic slowdown, and the EU’s emissions trading system continued to face challenges. Still, the European Union’s continued efforts to build strong regional climate policy, and its commitment to international negotiations were laudable.

The Pacific Islands Forum joined the European Union as leader for its role in convening member countries in the Marshall Islands to draft and sign the Majuro Declaration for Climate Leadership. The Majuro Declaration sets ambitious objectives for the signatories to transition to dramatically cleaner, low-carbon economies. Specifically, by 2020, the Cook Islands, Niue, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu will seek to utilize only renewable energy sources, and Tonga will ensure that its energy use is at least fifty percent renewable. The Declaration stood as an admirable good faith gesture to catalyze political will to address climate change. Though the direct impact of this effort may be limited, it was symbolically significant.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) received a gold star for continuing to publish detailed consensus reports—including a working group report in September 2013—that provide unprecedented clarity regarding the relationship between anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and climate change threats.

On the other side of the ledger, the Chinese and U.S. approaches to climate change remained weak, despite local or sector-specific initiatives. As the world’s first and second largest emitters of carbon dioxide, the two countries merited the label of laggard again in 2013 for failing to produce viable, ambitious proposals to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, experts warned that the United States would likely fall short on its pledge of cutting emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020 without a full achievement of the Obama administration’s Climate Action Plan. Meanwhile, despite a pledge to reduce carbon emissions as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), China’s emissions continue to grow. To be sure, China prohibited new coal plants in three major industrial cities to combat acutely dangerous levels of air pollution that threatened public health. However, even if China fully implements plans to install more green technology, coal will likely continue to account for as much as 60 percent of the country’s power generation in 2020. Equally worrisome, despite ambitious targets and support for green industries, domestic implementation of climate directives remained patchy. More generally, both China and the United States resisted multilateral commitments to reduce emissions. As a result, the two countries undercut the legitimacy of and prospects for a post-Kyoto treaty.

In 2013, Australia joined Russia as a class truant after its newly elected government immediately introduced a bill in November 2013 to repeal a tax on the three hundred largest domestic polluters. Coincidentally, that month, Australia led all developed countries in per capita greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, Russia remained a class truant again this year for stymieing UNFCCC negotiations with procedural objections, delaying progress at climate talks by at least six months.

Canada remained in detention for its government’s continuing reversals on emission reduction goals. In 2013, Canada ranked as the world’s seventh-largest national contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Absent further mitigation efforts, the country’s emissions are projected to increase to 734 megatons by 2020—a figure approximately 20 percent larger than Canada’s original target.

Table of Contents

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Introduction

In 2013, international cooperation to mitigate the threat of climate change was insufficient and, at times, verged on complete disarray. Overall, the success of the regime hinges upon curbing emissions and promoting low carbon development, and in these areas progress stalled. As a result, despite positive developments on the margins, international action to arrest climate change earned poor marks.

At the global level, political discord continued to obstruct preparatory negotiations for a successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol. Fundamentally, major emitters appeared to lack the political will to curtail emissions. Furthermore, tensions remained high between developed and developing countries that are party to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) over appropriate emissions reduction targets and adaptation aid for poorer countries.

To be sure, discrete efforts at the national level were increasingly dynamic. For example, the United States launched a more sector-specific regulatory approach, and individual states pursued local initiatives to limit carbon emissions. Similarly, Chinese provinces established experimental carbon exchanges. Nevertheless, it remained unclear whether these narrower approaches will have a meaningful impact on global climate change.

In addition, international donors did not provide enough financial support to help developing countries arrest and adapt to climate change. Furthermore, multilateral frameworks, such as the Clean Development Mechanism, set up to help reduce emissions struggled to implement their mandates. Meanwhile, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a grim report warning that the planet’s carbon budget—the amount of carbon the earth can safely retain—would be depleted in fifteen to twenty-five years.

This review identifies four major areas for improvement. First, the Obama administration should fully implement the 2013 Climate Action Plan to reduce emissions, while Congress should take more comprehensive action. Second, China should enact measures to cut emissions, particularly through reducing its reliance on coal and ensuring implementation of its existing environmental regulations. Third, countries should seek to build momentum for a post-Kyoto agreement in 2015. Fourth and finally, UNFCCC parties should build on the success of the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation initiative.

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Background

Though the science of climate dates back to the late-nineteenth century, the global warming debate sparked in the mid-twentieth century when researchers discovered [PDF] that the oceans could not absorb an unlimited amount of carbon dioxide. By 1972, both the United States and the UN founded environmental agencies to monitor and analyze the impact of human activity on the environment. The year 1985 proved to be a turning point when a conference of experts from the UN Environment Program, World Meteorological Organization, and International Council for Science concluded that greenhouse gases could increase average temperatures to the highest levels in human history, and called for a global convention to address climate change. At a landmark 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, states negotiated the UNFCCC and the Convention on Biological Diversity, and agreed to Agenda 21 [PDF]—a set of sustainable development commitments. Together, these steps aimed to mitigate and reverse the negative impact of human activity on the earth’s climate and environment.

In the two decades since the Earth Summit, the scientific consensus about the deleterious effects of climate change has strengthened. However, global efforts to cobble together an agreement to arrest climate change have floundered. Most of the significant environmental goals put forth at the 1992 summit were not achieved [PDF]. In 1997, recognizing the need for more meaningful action to combat climate change, states party to the UNFCCC adopted the Kyoto Protocol, which included obligations for Annex 1 parties (industrialized states) to collectively reduce their emissions by 5 percent below 1990 levels. Yet, this agreement struggled from the outset due to a U.S. Senate resolution opposing ratification of any international agreement on greenhouse gas emissions that did not require developing states to make commitments, or whose commitments might hurt the U.S. economy. Despite regional breakthroughs like a European Union (EU) Emissions Trading System, broad international agreement proved elusive, and the protocol failed to chart a course for climate governance to slow global warming. Indeed, an enduring stumbling block of the Kyoto Protocol has been international disagreement over whether and when non–Annex I parties, including rising powers like China—which in 2007 surpassed the United States as the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide—should be required to assume legally-binding obligations for emissions reductions, as do Annex I advanced economies. Despite heightened awareness of the harmful effects of climate change and repeated commitments by all major parties to cooperate in mitigation and adaptation efforts, disagreement among states continued to thwart progress.

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Class Evaluation

The EU earned the designation of class leader for its unprecedented funding and policies to address climate change. In 2013, the EU continued to champion more robust action to replace the Kyoto agreement. At the same time, the EU committed to spend as much as 180 billion euros [PDF] (approximately $250 billion) over seven years on climate-related projects both in the EU and in developing countries to mitigate or adapt to climate change. Moreover, over the past year, EU countries continued to make progress in curbing their own emissions. Indeed, eight of the top ten countries that achieved greenhouse gas emissions targets and improved energy efficiency were part of the EU, underscoring the region’s dedication to fighting climate change. To be sure, some of the reduced emissions were attributed to the continent’s economic slowdown, and the EU’s emissions trading system continued to face challenges. Still, the European Union’s continued efforts to build strong regional climate policy, and its commitment to international negotiations were laudable.

The Pacific Islands Forum joined the European Union as leader for its role in convening member countries in the Marshall Islands to draft and sign the Majuro Declaration for Climate Leadership. The Majuro Declaration sets ambitious objectives for the signatories to transition to dramatically cleaner, low-carbon economies. Specifically, by 2020, the Cook Islands, Niue, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu will seek to utilize only renewable energy sources, and Tonga will ensure that its energy use is at least fifty percent renewable. The Declaration stood as an admirable good faith gesture to catalyze political will to address climate change. Though the direct impact of this effort may be limited, it was symbolically significant.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) received a gold star for continuing to publish detailed consensus reports—including a working group report in September 2013—that provide unprecedented clarity regarding the relationship between anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and climate change threats.

On the other side of the ledger, the Chinese and U.S. approaches to climate change remained weak, despite local or sector-specific initiatives. As the world’s first and second largest emitters of carbon dioxide, the two countries merited the label of laggard again in 2013 for failing to produce viable, ambitious proposals to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, experts warned that the United States would likely fall short on its pledge of cutting emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020 without a full achievement of the Obama administration’s Climate Action Plan. Meanwhile, despite a pledge to reduce carbon emissions as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), China’s emissions continue to grow. To be sure, China prohibited new coal plants in three major industrial cities to combat acutely dangerous levels of air pollution that threatened public health. However, even if China fully implements plans to install more green technology, coal will likely continue to account for as much as 60 percent of the country’s power generation in 2020. Equally worrisome, despite ambitious targets and support for green industries, domestic implementation of climate directives remained patchy. More generally, both China and the United States resisted multilateral commitments to reduce emissions. As a result, the two countries undercut the legitimacy of and prospects for a post-Kyoto treaty.

In 2013, Australia joined Russia as a class truant after its newly elected government immediately introduced a bill in November 2013 to repeal a tax on the three hundred largest domestic polluters. Coincidentally, that month, Australia led all developed countries in per capita greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, Russia remained a class truant again this year for stymieing UNFCCC negotiations with procedural objections, delaying progress at climate talks by at least six months.

Canada remained in detention for its government’s continuing reversals on emission reduction goals. In 2013, Canada ranked as the world’s seventh-largest national contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Absent further mitigation efforts, the country’s emissions are projected to increase to 734 megatons by 2020—a figure approximately 20 percent larger than Canada’s original target.

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U.S. Performance & Leadership

C

In 2013, U.S. domestic policy to fight climate change varied between local jurisdictions, while its international strategy focused on minimizing commitments at UN climate talks. In 2013, U.S. carbon emissions ticked upward by 2 percent after several years of trending downwards, thanks in part to the lower cost of coal in 2013 (and inversely the higher cost of gas). Furthermore, despite reports that substituting shale gas for traditional fossil fuels reduced U.S. emissions to a twenty-year low, the hydraulic fracturing extraction process (commonly known as fracking) also contributes to greenhouse gases. Indeed, some studies even suggest it could ultimately contribute to global warming more than burning fossil fuels.

Given the declining forecasts for coal prices, a U.S. State Department report noted that without “additional policies” to combat climate change, emissions are likely to bounce back and continue rising.

On a more constructive note, the Obama administration launched the president’s Climate Action Plan [PDF] in June 2013. Priorities included mitigating carbon dioxide emissions in certain prime sectors; accelerating efforts to prepare for climate change impacts; and redoubling international leadership, such as through extracting commitments from emerging powers like China and India to further reduce emissions. The plan also directed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate the carbon pollution of existing power plants and write updated standards for new power plants. In addition, the administration directed all federal agencies to pursue a new goal of deriving 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020. However, experts expressed concern that the president’s plan, without complementary congressional action, could not curtail carbon emissions enough to limit harm from climate change.

Given the lack of political will in Congress, cooperative arrangements between local jurisdictions continued to proliferate. Individual U.S. states pursued mitigation strategies of their own and even launched initiatives with Canadian provinces. In October 2013, California, Oregon, and Washington, joined British Columbia in establishing the Pacific Coast Action Plan on Climate and Energy. The plan committed the four governments to reduce carbon emissions as well as promote the creation of new clean-energy employment opportunities. The initiative spanned a region that would constitute the planet’s fifth-largest economy, with a combined population of 53 million people. Specific elements of the accord included synchronizing 2050 goals for greenhouse gas mitigation, setting a target that 10 percent of new vehicles to generate zero emissions, and investing in research to combat ocean acidification.

California also struck a landmark agreement in September 2013 with the Chinese National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) to both mitigate carbon emissions and promote low carbon development. The memorandum of understanding committed the NDRC and California to share best practices and experiences with carbon emissions trading initiatives (as California moves forward with its own and China devises city-specific systems). In addition to the agreement with the NDRC and the Pacific Coast Action Plan, the California Resources Board entered into a pact with the province of Quebec to synchronize their respective cap and trade initiatives.

Ultimately, however, independent actions by some U.S. states and government agencies were no substitute for a comprehensive national approach, much less a binding multilateral agreement, to mitigate carbon emissions. On the international scene, the United States continued to resist ambitious targets for emissions reductions and extensive funding for developing countries as they endeavor to do so. This hindered progress on global negotiations for a post-Kyoto regime that could effectively complement domestic action.

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Understanding Climate Change Threats

Excellent

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the scientific body comprised of climate scientists from around the world operating under the auspices of the United Nations, continued to synthesize scientific research on the threats and causes of global warming. In September 2013, the group released a working group report that identified a “carbon budget”—an approximate threshold of anthropogenic emissions. If emissions surpass this limit, the earth will likely warm more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit from a preindustrial baseline. If warming exceeds [PDF] that temperature, the panel warned of dangerous consequences, such as high sea-level rise and temperate volatility. The IPCC warned that this carbon budget was already over 50 percent depleted, and was on a trajectory to be completely consumed by 2045. The IPCC also affirmed with 95 percent confidence that the majority of warming that occurred between 1951 and 2010 was due to the observed rise in concentrations of anthropogenic greenhouse gas.

However, general knowledge of climate change science in the United States, where public support for policy action is critical to global efforts, remained troubling. In April 2013, a Gallup poll underscored the problem: In contrast to the broad, published consensus of the scientific community, more than one-quarter of American adult respondents answered that “most scientists believe global warming is not occurring.” This disconnect continued to undercut U.S. policymakers’ ability to tackle climate change.

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Curbing Emissions and Promoting Low Carbon Development

Poor

Reducing emissions and promoting low carbon development continued to be the central challenges to addressing climate change. Unfortunately, progress in these areas remained inadequate in 2013. This was particularly alarming given that, in May, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) logged measurements showing that average concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had exceeded four hundred parts per million. The measurement was symbolically significant as scientists believed it was the highest in the preceding three million years.

On the international stage, the Kyoto Protocol’s second commitment period began on January 1, 2013, and elicited new emissions reduction targets from participating countries. However, the accord grew increasingly weak without pledges from major emitters like the United States (which had never signed the protocol) and Russia, Japan, and Canada (which dropped out in 2012). Moreover, countries failed to reach consensus to prepare for the critical 2015 UNFCCC conference in Paris, where international leaders hope to secure agreement on a treaty to succeed the protocol.

Negotiators’ disagreements at the conference of the parties (COP) to the UNFCCC in Warsaw stemmed, in large part, from longstanding divisions between industrialized and developing countries There, the Group of Seventy-seven, a coalition of over 130 developing countries, announced a walk-out at 4am during negotiations on the question of compensation for loss and damages due to climate change. Ultimately, the developed and developing countries were unable to overcome their differences, though they did establish the Warsaw Mechanism for Loss and Damage to assist developing countries with emergency and disaster relief stemming from climate change–induced weather variability. This initiative may enable future progress by moderating some of the acrimony in advance of the critical 2015 COP in Paris, though some observers expressed concern that it will only distract from more central negotiations.

The EU continued to lead mitigation efforts, pursuing more ambitious goals than the rest of the developed world in general. Having over-achieved [PDF] in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the first phase of the protocol, the EU was on track to more than fulfill its unilateral commitment to reduce emissions to 20 percent below the 1990 baseline by 2020. The EU achieved these reductions in part through the world’s most extensive emissions trading system [PDF] (ETS), though the economic recession on the continent also contributed to the reductions. Though the ETS continued to be plagued by a surplus of emissions permits in 2013, and the uptick in German coal use was concerning, EU members showed that it was feasible to enact ambitious policies that other countries could emulate.

The United States and China did take small national steps to curb emissions. The White House’s Climate Action Plan specified a fresh approach to emissions reduction, and China made headway in green technologies and laying the foundations for emissions trading systems. In June 2013, President Obama and President Xi Jinping of China also agreed to mutual reductions in the production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) under the Montreal Protocol. It was unclear whether these reductions were additional to commitments these countries had previously made pursuant to the protocol. The elimination of U.S. and Chinese HFCs by 2050 promised to eliminate the equivalent of two years’ worth of all greenhouse gas emissions. This initiative set the stage for broader negotiations on phasing out HFCs among Group of Twenty countries (though objections from India ultimately delayed discussions on implementation in 2013). Overall, however, these actions alone will still not achieve the necessary reductions to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.

Other countries and institutions undertook constructive efforts outside of the UNFCCC framework. At year’s end, the Climate and Clean Air Action Coalition of countries committed to reductions in the release of short-lived pollutants (e.g., black carbon and methane) into the atmosphere had grown in its initial eighteen months from six to thirty-eight member nations. It had also integrated an additional forty-four non-country participants, such as the Environmental Defense Fund and the World Bank. Donor countries pledged [PDF] roughly $60 million by the end of the year for the coalition, though the sum was relatively low. Also, as noted earlier, California signed an innovative pact with China’s National Development and Reform Commission in September—which other regional or local leaders could emulate in the future. Finally, a minor but still promising development came in July when the World Bank announced, as part of a broader commitment to pursue low-carbon development, that it would limit funding for new coal plants and recommit those resources to clean energy projects. Though the initial impact of this realignment may be small, it could set a positive precedent for international norms of development assistance that promote renewable energy.

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Monitoring and Enforcing Emissions Curbs

Average

Throughout the year, multilateral mechanisms for monitoring implementation of emissions reductions targets remained functional, but unable to fill gaps in monitoring or actively enforce emissions cuts. Many developing countries, in particular, continued to lack the capacity to monitor and report on their emissions reductions.

At the 2009 fifteenth COP to the UNFCCC in Copenhagen, countries consented to biannual reporting on their national commitments for emissions mitigation, their greenhouse gas inventories, and their progress to date. These reports would then be subjected to international review. The members of the UNFCCC formally endorsed this pledge-and-review system in the 2010 COP-16 Cancun Agreements. In June 2011, Annex I countries first published emissions reduction targets [PDF]. Then, at COP-17 in Durban, South Africa, developed countries agreed to make biennial submissions to the UNFCCC that would detail national implementation of their mitigation goals and emissions forecasts for 2020–2030. Throughout 2013, most countries submitted these reports in order to meet the January 1, 2014, deadline.

Unfortunately, the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) under the Kyoto Protocol did not advance during the year. The CDM, which provides a means for industrialized countries to earn credits toward their own Kyoto targets by supporting emissions reduction projects in developing countries, has long been criticized for merely displacing the emissions without reducing overall emissions. Furthermore, the price of a carbon credit had plummeted to $0.82 by October 2013, undermining the CDM’s viability. Consequently, the CDM’s relevance beyond 2020 remained uncertain.

Finally, enforcement of the Kyoto Protocol continued to be weak. Under the Kyoto Protocol compliance mechanism, a noncompliant party to the protocol must “make up the difference between its emissions and its assigned amount during the second commitment period, plus an additional deduction of 30 percent.” However, the consequences for breaking commitments remained minimal. Parties who fail to meet their emissions reduction targets can simply opt to renegotiate their future targets.

Ultimately, major emitters’ lack of commitment to the protocol undermined monitoring mechanisms associated with it. The United States accounts for 17 percent of global emissions, while Japan, Russia, and Canada (which all withdrew from the second commitment period) cumulatively account for more than 29 percent of international greenhouse gas emissions. As a result, other countries had little motivation to adhere to international commitments.

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Financing Emissions Cuts and Adaptation

Poor

International efforts to finance climate-change projects proved disappointing in 2013. The GCF, one of the primary mechanisms designed to channel annual commitments escalating to a combined $100 billion of public and private money by 2020, opened its headquarters in Songdo, South Korea on December 4. However, two months earlier, the GCF announced [PDF] that it would delay its initial fundraising process from the original timeframe of November 2013 to mid-2014. By December, observers expressed concern that the GCF might not be able to raise the necessary capital. Furthermore, uncertainty remained over whether developed countries’ commitments would be additional allocations, or merely redirect funds from other budgets for fighting climate change. Early indications suggested that developed countries were unlikely to meet new pledges. (Notably, South Korea, the host of the new fund, contributed the most to it—$40 million.)

In particular need of funding are adaptation activities. Though overall financing for adaptation efforts has grown, it continued to be insufficiently prioritized in 2013 and represented only 17 percent of climate finance. A rare exception was the EU, which committed approximately $170 million [PDF] to multilateral adaptation funds (including the Least Developed Countries Fund, the Special Climate Change Fund and the Adaptation Fund). However, this merely underscored the extent to which other countries and institutions failed to prioritize climate change.

Furthermore, the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage, which countries established at COP-19 in Warsaw, earned mixed reviews. The mechanism stipulates that developed countries will provide assistance to those developing countries most affected by climate change. Though many details of the mechanism remained unclear, some observers expressed concern that it would merely focus attention on the controversial question of historic responsibility for climate change rather than inspire cooperation to finance emissions reductions.

One small bright spot emerged in April 2013 when the Multilateral Fund for the Implementation of the Montreal Protocol announced a major project [PDF] to furnish China, the largest producer and consumer of hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), with up to $385 million for the total eradication of its industrial production of ozone depleting substances and related greenhouse gas emissions.

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Adapting to Climate Change

Poor

Adaptation efforts in 2013 lacked urgency. While China, the United States, and the European Union established plans to protect their own populations from climate change, assistance for poor countries that are most vulnerable to climate change calamities remained weak.

On the whole, developed countries and other major economies only modestly contributed to the adaptation efforts of developing nations—most of which lack the capacity to do so sufficiently on their own. This was made tragically clear in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, the strongest storm to make landfall in recorded history. The scale of destruction and the chaotic response to it illustrated how vulnerable countries have not managed to build resilient systems that can function after extreme weather events—and underscored how unprepared national and international systems are to cope in the aftermath. And yet, one of the primary international initiatives set up to help developing countries increase their resilience, the Adaptation Fund, faced critical budget shortfalls but received minimal support from developed countries. Consequently, in October 2013, the Adaptation Fund announced that it would need to postpone projects in Mali, Cuba, Myanmar, and Uzbekistan.

To address adaptation domestically, in November 2013, President Obama issued an executive order to better equip U.S. infrastructure to withstand climate change. The order represented an important recognition of the need for adaptation. Nevertheless, the directives—such as improving interagency cooperation and instructing agencies to take inventory of policies that affect watersheds and ecosystems—appeared superficial.

In December 2013, China launched its first climate adaptation plan. The ambitious plan outlined initiatives for all major Chinese ministries to pursue and included improved early-warning detection, infrastructure updates, and bolstering protection of nature and wildlife. It even proposed innovative “weather-based financial instruments” to help small farmers hedge against extreme weather events. The extensive adaptation measures appeared promising, if faithfully implemented.

Along the same lines, in April 2013 the European Commission adopted an EU strategy on adaptation to climate change, designed to strengthen climate resilience across the EU. The strategy called for all member states to develop comprehensive adaptation strategies and committed capacity-building funding for those countries that do so. Though both China’s and the EU’s plans were welcome preliminary steps to support adaptation, they were ultimately overshadowed by the international lack of support to provide adaptation assistance to developing countries.

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Utilizing Carbon Sinks

Good

Natural carbon sinks—the planet’s oceans, soils, and forests—are critical resources for slowing the rise in the concentration of greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), the major UN framework established to preserve forests, continued to expand in 2013, and made several positive strides in moving from conception to implementation. Similarly, a parallel World Bank initiative, the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF) also merited praise.

On January 10, 2013, the World Bank announced that Finland, Germany, and Norway had each committed to donate approximately $180 million to the FCPF. The FCPF, which the World Bank administers to aid developing countries in reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, aims to compensate developing countries for reducing global carbon dioxide emissions through the conservation of forests. As of December 2013, the FCPF had attracted $650 million in contributions [PDF], divided between $260 million allocated to the Readiness Fund and $390 million allocated to the Carbon Fund. Under the FCPF program, the government of Costa Rica and the World Bank also reached an agreement to provide compensation worth as much as $63 million to property owners that preserve forests.

Elsewhere, implementation of the REDD framework continued to expand, despite concerns that the framework was not confronting the underlying causes of deforestation (e.g., expanding agriculture). Indeed, since 2004, Brazil—a pilot country for the REDD—has decelerated deforestation rates by 83 percent (although the record for the 2013 was less rosy). In July 2013, Vietnam became the first of forty-seven partner countries in the REDD initiative to advance to the second phase of greenhouse gas reduction through enhanced forest and land-use administration. In September, the Japanese Fund for Poverty Reduction, via the Asian Development Bank, committed $1.5 million to Vietnam in a grant to assist with payment for forestry environmental programs from 2014-2016. These were modest, but nevertheless set precedents that could catalyze further action.

Finally, at COP-19 in Warsaw, negotiators reached agreement on several significant issues to enhance the REDD+ program—an extension of the original REDD framework. Specifically, negotiators found consensus on the broad regulation, funding, and country-wide systematization of the initiative. In Warsaw, UNFCCC members also established that all REDD+ projects comply with environmental and human rights standards to establish an international system for the monitoring, reporting, and verification of emissions mitigation from standing forests. Finally, the negotiators agreed to record baselines of current forest stocks to help quantify progress in forest conservation.

At the same time, though oceans are estimated to have absorbed almost half of all carbon dioxide emissions in the preceding century, the past year saw no progress in developing a multilateral initiative to preserve oceanic capacity for carbon absorption.

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Areas for Improvement

Moving forward, states should take the following actions to address climate change:

  • The United States should fully implement the Climate Action Plan to ensure it meets the pledge made by President Obama to reduce emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. In addition, U.S. progress on climate change will continue to lag without congressional action, including working toward setting a price on carbon.

  • China should take broader action to reduce emissions in its energy sector, especially by decreasing China’s reliance on coal. At the same time, the central government should step up monitoring and improve inspection procedures to ensure that corrupt local authorities do not sidestep environmental regulations.

  • Countries engaged in the UNFCCC process, and major emitters in particular, should seek to build momentum for a post-Kyoto agreement in 2015. Over the next year, developed countries should pressure and assist developing countries to devise strategies to mitigate greenhouse gases through, for example, energy efficient technologies. At the same time, developed countries should deliver on their pledge to support financing for fighting climate change. Funding should be new and additional to the existing monies attributed to tackling climate change.

  • National governments and international institutions need to build upon successful efforts to maintain healthy, intact forests as carbon sinks. Though substantial progress has been made in this area, it is vital to maintain momentum rather than risk complacency. For example, effective implementation of the REDD+ initiative requires [PDF] devoting resources to build capacity in and extend government support to local communities where REDD+ projects are being implemented, in addition to financing the projects themselves.

Credits

Produced by the Council on Foreign Relations and Threespot

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