US sets out big statement of global climate policy. Don’t hold your breath

US Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern’s speech at Chatham House a couple of days ago is worth a look if you follow climate change. But don’t expect it to cheer you up.

It’s a thoughtful piece that clearly sets out where the US is coming from with regard to a new international agreement. But here’s the key part – which comes right after he acknowledges developing countries’ concerns about retaining space to develop as “entirely legitimate”:

The nationally determined structure of commitments we have already discussed should satisfy this pragmatic purpose, since countries would make their own decisions about what kind of mitigation commitments were appropriate given their own circumstances and capabilities.

Sigh – here we are once again with the same old pledge-and-review crap of countries doing whatever they figure they can manage, and then hoping it will somehow magically add up to the right global outcome. As though the atmosphere will award ‘marks for effort’.

And if you’re wondering where this kind of approach leads us, well, this year’s IEA World Energy Outlook  – published next month but extract available here – estimates that the net effect of commitments under the Copenhagen Accord will be 3.6-5.3 degrees Celsius of long term warming, most of it before the end of this century.

Oh, and despite the comprehensive nature of Stern’s speech, there’s one thing he conspicuously didn’t mention – the global target of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius. Go figure.

Someone explain to me again how the Obama Administration’s global climate policy is different from that of the Bush Administration?

Iran’s biggest headache

A coda to my post a couple of weeks back on the role of climate change and resource scarcity as conflict threat multipliers in Syria, via Tom Friedman in the NY Times:

“Our main problem that threatens us, that is more dangerous than Israel, America or political fighting, is the issue of living in Iran. Is that the Iranian plateau is becoming uninhabitable. … Groundwater has decreased and a negative water balance is widespread, and no one is thinking about this.

“I am deeply worried about the future generations. … If this situation is not reformed, in 30 years Iran will be a ghost town. Even if there is precipitation in the desert, there will be no yield, because the area for groundwater will be dried and water will remain at ground level and evaporate.

“All the bodies of natural water in Iran are drying up: Lake Urumieh, Bakhtegan, Tashak, Parishan and others … deserts in Iran are spreading, and I am warning you that South Alborz and East Zagros will be uninhabitable and people will have to migrate. But where? Easily I can say that of the 75 million people in Iran, 45 million will have uncertain circumstances. … If we start this very day to address this, it will take 12 to 15 years to balance.”

– Iran’s former agriculture minister Issa Kalantari (now an adviser to Hassan Rouhani), writing in the Iranian Ghanoon newspaper.

Total energy decarbonisation by 2030 AND flat fuel bills? Seriously?

Blimey – Ed Miliband certainly likes to make it hard for himself.

Amid all the coverage this morning of his Labour conference speech yesterday, one small detail seems to have been overlooked: his commitment to total decarbonisation of the energy sector by 2030.

Labour had already committed to including a decarbonisation target in its 2015 manifesto, back in June this year after a cross-party amendment to the Energy Bill in favour of such a measure was defeated by the government – but hadn’t specified the level of the target. This is what Ed Miliband provided yesterday, when he said that

Labour will have a world leading commitment in government to take all of the carbon out of our energy by 2030.

This is a hugely ambitious commitment, and green campaigners will be purring. But you have to wonder – how exactly will this be squared this with the other new policy commitment on energy that he announced yesterday: “the next Labour government will freeze gas and electricity prices until the start of 2017”? Because if we really want to achieve a 100% decarbonisation target in just a decade and a half, it will cost more.

It may be that Labour’s simply ignoring the economics of this because the politics are so good. Jonathan Freedland observes this morning that focus group approval of price controls on gas and electricity is “off the charts”, according to a senior Labour figure. The FT’s political team, meanwhile, notes that however much the Conservatives, Lib Dems, and energy companies howl about the risk of lights going out,

Mr Miliband will relish the backlash, which he hopes will highlight his claim to be willing to side with ordinary families against big business and to tilt the economic playing field back in their favour.

“The companies won’t like it because it will cost them money,” Mr Miliband said. “But they have been overcharging people for too long because the market doesn’t work. We need to press the reset button.”

I assume that Labour knows what it’s doing here, not only because Ed Miliband knows the DECC brief back to front but also because Bryony Worthington is a shadow DECC minister and knows more about the energy sector than most of the energy companies themselves do. But I’d feel better seeing some detailed unpacking of the underlying assumptions…

Did climate change help cause Syria’s civil war?

That’s the argument made by William Polk, a historian who worked on the State Dept’s Policy Planning staff under Kennedy, in a long piece sent to James Fallows at The Atlantic. The whole piece is excellent – a carefully argued weighing of the evidence (which concludes, by the way, that the jury is still very much out on whether the Assad regime was actually responsible for the use of chemical weapons) – but here’s what he has to say about climate change in a section on the conflict’s context:

Syria has been convulsed by civil war since climate change came to Syria with a vengeance. Drought devastated the country from 2006 to 2011.  Rainfall in most of the country fell below eight inches (20 cm) a year, the absolute minimum needed to sustain un-irrigated farming. Desperate for water, farmers began to tap aquifers with tens of thousands of new well.  But, as they did, the water table quickly dropped to a level below which their pumps could lift it.

In some areas, all agriculture ceased.  In others crop failures reached 75%.  And generally as much as 85% of livestock died of thirst or hunger.  Hundreds of thousands of Syria’s farmers gave up, abandoned their farms and fled to the cities and towns in search of almost non-existent jobs and severely short food supplies.  Outside observers including UN experts estimated that between 2 and 3  million of Syria’s 10 million rural inhabitants were reduced to “extreme poverty.”

The domestic Syrian refugees immediately found that they had to compete not only with one another for scarce food, water and jobs, but also with the already existing foreign refugee population.  Syria already was a refuge for quarter of a million Palestinians and about a hundred thousand people who had fled the war and occupation of Iraq.  Formerly prosperous farmers were lucky to get jobs as hawkers or street sweepers.  And in the desperation of the times, hostilities erupted among groups that were competing just to survive.

Of course, academic conflict experts are always sceptical of the notion that a conflict can be attributed to one cause alone. But it’s very hard to argue against the idea that climate change is a very big threat multiplier – see e.g. this paper (pdf) of mine for the World Bank a few years ago, or this terrific report on the Arab Spring and climate change from the Center for American Progress in which Anne-Marie Slaughter, another State Dept Policy Planning veteran, argues that,

Crime-show devotees will be familiar with the idea of a “stressor” — a sudden change in circumstances or environment that interacts with a complicated psychological profile in a way that leads a previously quiescent person to become violent. The stressor is by no means the only cause of the crimes that ensue, but it is an important factor in a complex set of variables that ultimately lead to disaster.

The Arab Spring and Climate Change does not argue that climate change caused the revolutions that have shaken the Arab world over the past two years. But the essays collected in this slim volume make a compelling case that the consequences of climate change are stressors that can ignite a volatile mix of underlying causes that erupt into revolution.

But back to the specific case of Syria – which gets worse. For Polk then describes how the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) made desperate pleas to USAID for humanitarian assistance, warning that Syria was facing a “perfect storm” and “social destruction”, and noting that Syria’s agriculture minister had said publicly that the drought was “beyond our capacity as a country to deal with”.

Instead, USAID’s reaction (set out in a subsequently leaked cable dated November 2008) was to “question whether limited USG resources should be directed toward this appeal at this time”. And, as this FT piece from October 2009 makes clear, the US wasn’t alone in declining to assist: a whole year after FAO’s call for help, UN OCHA was saying that it hadn’t received any money from donors despite seeking $53m in emergency funds.

Meanwhile, the Syrian government – in normal times, a major exporter of wheat – was also making its own catastrophic errors of judgement:

Lured by the high price of wheat on the world market, it sold its reserves. In 2006, according to the US Department of Agriculture, it sold 1,500,000 metric tons or twice as much as in the previous year.  The next year it had little left to export; in 2008 and for the rest of the drought years it had to import enough wheat to keep its citizens alive. So tens of thousands of frightened, angry, hungry and impoverished former farmers flooded constituted a “tinder” that was ready to catch fire.

As a Syrian economist quoted in another FT piece published a year before the first protests observed with eerie prescience, “now we have drought, I hope it will not create political problems”.

Emerging economies’ dangerous game on the post-2015 development agenda

The internal dynamics of the G77 group of developing countries are shifting rapidly on both climate change and the post-2015 international development agenda, as the interests of least developed countries increasingly diverge from those of emerging economies – with pretty far-reaching implications.

Least developed countries (LDCs) are continuing to prioritise adaptation financing in the climate context, but they’re increasingly also focused on the need for higher levels of ambition on the mitigation side of the equation – not just from developed countries, but also from emerging economies, given the proportion of global emissions that they now account for. This has already contributed to a sharp decline in G77 cohesion in the UNFCCC process.

In the development context, meanwhile, different LDCs have different priorities. Most of them continue to regard ODA levels as their key priority – ideally increasing them towards 0.7, and at a minimum stemming the real terms decline seen over the last couple of years. But this is not true of all countries: for governments such as Bangladesh, Zambia, and Malawi, ODA is arguably less important than a successful conclusion to the Doha trade round, together with opportunities in investment, migration, and remittances.  Still, across both development and climate, it is clear that equity remains a key lens through which LDCs view the world.

The key emerging economies, meanwhile – China, Brazil, India, and South Africa – are among the principal demandeurs for a pledge-and-review based approach in the climate context, hence the tensions with LDCs, as well as small island states, over levels of ambition. (Admittedly, some emerging economies – and especially China – are pursuing much more ambitious strategies at national level than their scepticism of global monitoring, reporting, and verification might suggest; but the fact remains that their and others’ voluntary pledges under the Copenhagen Accord imply long term warming of 3.6 – 5.3 degrees Celsius, rather than the globally agreed target of 2 degrees.)

But while it is clear that emerging economies regard global climate policy as a matter of fundamental national interest, it is by no means obvious that the same applies with the post-2015 development agenda. Emerging economies are less reliant than ever on ODA levels, and while many of them are now becoming aid donors in their own right, they show little interest in multilateral coordination of their efforts with those of OECD donors.

This potential lack of emerging economy interest in the post-2015 agenda creates a significant political risk. With emerging economies’ interests increasingly diverging from those of LDCs in the climate context (as well as on several trade issues), they have every reason to try to direct LDCs’ political and moral suasion towards developed countries, and away from themselves.

This in turn gives them a powerful incentive to play up a ‘North versus South’ narrative in the post-2015 context, and to aim for the idea of common but differentiated responsibilities to be as central a concept in development as it already is in climate – something that is now happening rapidly in post-2015 debates in New York, where the tone of discussions is becoming increasingly polarised.

The risk of such an approach, of course, is that it could lead to the post-2015 agenda becoming seriously bogged down amid a mood of mutual recrimination. But it is not clear that this would come at a significant opportunity cost to emerging economies, given that there appears to be little that they want from the agenda. On the other hand, as noted, it might help to ease LDC pressure on them to shift positions on climate or trade. Cynical? Sure – though no more so than the US’s earnest talk about food security while continuing to keep ethanol mandates in place, or EU farm support policy. And smart, too – at least in terms of narrow self-interest.

Obama’s failure on climate

In the Guardian, George Monbiot is incandescent about the failure of Obama and Romney to speak out about climate change.

The two candidates remain struck dumb. Speech fails them, action is abominable, they will not even raise their hands in self-defence. The world’s most pressing crisis, now breaking down the doors of the world’s most powerful nation, cannot be discussed.

Although Monbiot briefly refers to a lack of action, most of his article is dedicated to what the candidates have or haven’t said during the course of an interminable election campaign. Real world data, by contrast, does not get a look in.

As far back as the first Bush administration, successive presidents have been promising that they would restrain America’s carbon emissions, but have failed to deliver. Instead, emissions rose sharply during their term in office. Under Obama, they have finally hit a peak, are falling, and are expected to continue to do so.

By 2020, according to a projection published last month by Resources for the Future, US emissions will be 16% below a 2005 benchmark, in line with the Obama’s administration’s pledge under the Copenhagen Accord. (See Michael Levi for a useful discussion of the RFF study.)

As this graph shows, tighter regulation of greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act  is playing the greatest role, with new standards kicking in in 2011. This is followed by ‘secular trends’ (higher energy prices) and action at sub-national level, mostly in California.

There are many problems with US policy at the moment. For example, the extent to which the US exports the coal it no longer needs will have a huge bearing on the net climate impact of its increased use of gas for electricity generation, for example.

However, its emissions trajectory is shifting, and this is likely to continue, and could accelerate, if Obama wins a second term today. It will also be fascinating to see how an American president deals with climate internationally if, for the first time, he walks into a negotiation with a story to tell of progress at home.

Resource scarcity in Ethiopia

Global concern is currently mounting all over again about the impacts of a more resource-scarce world, with particular attention focused at present on the risks of a renewed global food price spike following a spate of extreme weather in the US and around the world. Two weeks ago, corn and soyabean prices broke the record they had set during the 2008 food spike, while wheat prices have increased by 50% over the last five weeks.

These global trends have the potential to cause massive problems for a country like Ethiopia – where wheat is by far the country’s biggest import by value. And that’s before you take into account low agricultural yields and farm sizes, major exposure to drought, limited access to energy, and how these challenges will be magnified by high rates of population and economic growth, which will increase demand for resources – as well as intensifying climate change impacts

Against this backdrop, the NYU Center on International Cooperation has just published a new report of mine entitled Resources, Risks and Resilience: Scarcity and climate change in Ethiopia.  This is the first in a series of CIC case studies on the risks that resource scarcity and climate change pose to poor countries – and on how those countries and their international partners can build resilience to them. (A second case study, on resource scarcity in Pakistan, is currently being prepared by David Steven; plans are also in train to undertake a third study on Nigeria.)

While the report sets out a daunting set of scarcity-driven challenges for Ethiopia, it also notes that Ethiopia’s government is well aware of the challenges it faces, and has put in place a battery of policies to address them – including, notably, the breathtaking aim of becoming a middle income country by 2025 with zero net growth in greenhouse gas emissions, as well as an extremely ambitious (and controversial) program of dam-building and large scale agricultural projects.

As well as assessing these policies, the report also identifies a range of vulnerabilities, policy gaps and exogenous risks that will need to be taken account of in future planning by the government and its international partners. It concludes by setting out a ten point agenda on how Ethiopia’s government and partners can improve their performance in managing scarcity issues. Continue reading