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President Biden’s first in-person appearance on the world stage included a tense but business-like meeting with Vladimir Putin, a NATO meeting in which NATO solidarity was vociferously reaffirmed and a meeting of G7 leaders in which the perceived threats of climate change and China both loomed large.

The final agreement announced at the conclusion of the G7 last Sunday featured two elements with direct bearing on China and, particularly, on China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI): a commitment to phase out coal-fired electricity generation and a revived commitment to provide $100 billion in green finance assistance to developing countries.  Both commitments were, however, long on symbolism and short on substance.

Today’s post looks at why the headlines for both announcements were printed in such large banner font, why the accompanying stories were so short in column-inch detail and why both stories serve to center on China at a meeting – involving the heads of state of the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Germany, France, Italy and Japan – where China is not represented.

The electricity generation commitment undertaken by the seven leaders was specifically that their governments would provide no new support for thermal coal power generation except in cases where carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology is deployed in tandem to neutralize the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced by coal-firing.  This undertaking supports a previous G7 commitment to halve emissions by 2030 (against a 2010 baseline) on the way to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

The green finance commitment announced announced Sunday – to provide $100 billion annually to help developing countries decarbonize – was not in fact a new commitment but a reaffirmation of an earlier commitment which had lapsed during the Trump years. It was rolled out on Sunday with a new name – the Build Back Better World Initiative – but with no new funding attached.

Seen from a global perspective, both commitments are intended as a direct response to China and its Belt and Road Initiative.  China’s trajectory of domestic high-growth has resulted in it recently surpassing the GHG emissions of the entire developed world combined, according to a recent report by the Rhodium Group.  Compounding this unfavorable trend, China continues to support its Big Coal industry by encouraging exports of coal-fired power generation equipment to its less developed BRI partner countries.  The G7’s electricity generation commitment is therefore intended to draw a sharp contrast in climate change global leadership between the G7 group of democracies and the China’s competing, more authoritarian model.  Similarly, the green financing commitment is intended as an alternative pool of financing for developing countries to draw on separate from Chinese government lending and the BRI-focused Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

So what accounts for the splashy headline but dearth of detail?  Two factors. The first is the very evident desire of the other six countries to welcome the U.S., post-Trump, “back into the club” by explicitly amplifying in the international arena President Biden’s domestic Build Back Better theme; and, more importantly, by presenting a show of implicit support for Biden’s “Summit of the Democracies” strategy for countering China. In short, the symbolism was more important than the actual substance for achieving this goal.

Hammering out the details of the power generation agreement and expanding on the scope of the green finance commitment eluded the G7 leaders at this meeting due to a lack of confidence, especially among the three leaders from Continental Europe, that detailed and expanded agreement will stick. There are three levels of doubt contributing to this lack of confidence.  In order of ascending importance, there is:

  • Uncertainty over how Biden and his National Security Council deputies Kurt Campbell and John Kerry are going to square heightened competition with China in the technology space with attempted renewal of cooperation with China in addressing climate change;
  • Doubt over the ability of the Administration to get its proposals through a closely-divided and highly-partisan Congress; and
  • Concern that the American public’s fling with climate science denial and Trumpian America First thinking might not be a one-time affair and could come to the fore again in the 2022 mid-term election and the 2024 Presidential election.

Given these doubts, any effort to provide substantive detail for the power generation agreement and to expand the green financing agreement would have been prone to failure and could have undercut the paramount goal of projecting renewed G7 solidarity and democratic unity.  Looked at from another angle, this result shows how much effort and hard work will be required to reestablish the global momentum toward 2050 climate goals following Trump’s decision to pull America out from the Paris Accord Conference of Parties (COP) process.

Yes, You’re On The Road to Paris

Let’s take the second question first.  How did you find yourself on the road to Paris?  Well, that’s because you’re a human being sharing in the planet’s oxygen, foodstuffs and other resources, and because you, like your other human planetary co-habitants, have ceded some of your autonomy to governments since the dawn of civilization.  From that view, the 2015 Road to Paris is the effort being undertaken by all the nations in the world to take their first meaningful step together toward averting the risk of planetary environmental destabilization.  It’s encouraging that this first big step looks likely to happen in 2015, because the nations of the world have been talking about the step, without taking it, since 1995.

What is this step?  Essentially, it’s the world all signing on together to a insurance plan at the global level. The insurance plan hedges against the increasingly clear and present danger of climate change tipping us into a non-sustainable (for humans and most mammals, that is) future.

Before describing the Paris destination in December 2015 (and detailing the circuitous route we have been traveling since 1995 to arrive in Paris), let’s dispatch one canard forthwith: there is no certainty.  The climate change discourse is all-too-often framed in the media and our daily conversations as a dialogue of the deaf between passionate proponents and equally passionate deniers. For most, the weight of scientific data — as well as their intuitive, non-scientific “felt experience” — has been clearly elevating the possibility, if not the probability, that  self-reinforcing cycles of warming are being triggered as a result of the post-industrial patterns of carbon and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  (see the Introductory chapter of The God Species: Saving the Planet in the Age of Humans for a clear-headed discussion of our risks of overstepping nine particular boundaries that are required for maintaining human-friendly planetary balance).

Here’s the point:  None of us should be talking about certainty.  No environmentalist, no matter how committed, can say with certainty that we are headed toward human-triggered environmental disaster. No skeptic of climate change can say, at least not with credence, that there is zero risk.  The focus needs to be on the twins facts that (a) there is clearly some risk and that (b) the consequences of inattention to, or mismanagement of, this risk are so high as to be unaffordable at every level  .  No general fighting for military survival can wait until all of the pertinent facts of the battlefield are known before engaging in battle. Choices have to be made, and actions taken, in the absence of perfect knowledge.   I submit that we all should be able to agree — or, at least, enough of us for an effective consensus — to taking steps at the local, national and global level to mitigate this imperfectly understood risk while there is still time to do so.

Road to Paris

So What Is ‘The Road To Paris’ in 2015 (and how did we get here)?

The ‘Road to Paris’ refers to this year’s leg of the global journey we have been on since 1995.  This somewhat quixotic journey has been to try to address, as a community of nations, the risks of climate change.  Since this is, by definition, a supra-national effort, this journey has been undertaken under United Nations auspices (since the United States and the other leading Allied nations coming out of World War II set up the United Nations precisely as the forum to deal with this type of supra-national, global challenge).

This being the U.N., there is some mind-numbing nomenclature and an alphabet soup of acronyms to deal with.  There is also the inherent frustration embedded in dealing with the world (where, if you’re a non-diplomatically inclined person, it’s frustrating to find that people don’t latch on to what you think is the right way of doing things right away).  As to the nomenclature and acronyms, I’ll just cover the three most important ones for present purposes:  The framework which has governed this process since it got going in 1995 with “The Berlin Mandate” is known as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (or UNFCCC).  The framework is carried forward through yearly conferences, sometimes at the head of state level and sometimes at the ministerial level, which are called Conference of Party meetings (or COP).  Finally, the groundwork for the UNFCCC & COP meetings was originally prepared, and continues to be scientfically led, by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ( or IPCC).  Established by the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organizaiton in 1988, the IPCC acts as the leading international body for the scientific assessment of climate change to guide the poltiical work of the UNFCCC and its COP meetings.

Got that?  Good.  It gets easier to follow the roadmap from here on in.

As mentioned, The Berlin Mandate in 1995 was the starting point for the global effort to come up with some form of global response to the emerging global threat of climate change.  That led after two years of talking to high hopes at Kyoto that the world community would agree to an action plan (the so-called Kyoto Protocol). An action plan did in fact take shape but left unresolved key issues between the industrialized countries (who were being asked to underwrite most of the cost for the various action mechanisms) and developing countries (who were being asked to implement these mechanisms at possible risk to their economic growth prospects).  As a result of these tensions, the U.S. Congress refused to ratify the treaty after President Clinton signed it and the Bush Administration subsequently repudiated the treaty explicitly.

Without U.S. participation, the UNFCCC bus careened around various COP destinations (Buenos Aires, Bonn, Marrakech, New Delhi, Milan, Montreal, Nairobi, Bali, Poznan, Copenhagen, Cancun Durban, Doha and Warsaw — with repeat forays to some) for the next 17 years without any fundamental resolution to the “who pays” question and without any real semblance of  full global consensus emerging.

This changed on November 11, 2014 when Presidents Obama and Xi Jinping made surprise joint announcements on U.S.-China Cooperation on Climate Change and Clean Energy.  This breakthrough  —  involving the world’s two largest economies, two largest carbon-emitters, and de-facto leaders of the two contending blocs within the UNFCCC process  — was then further consolidated at the next scheduled COP meeting, scarcely a month later, in Lima, Peru (COP 20).

As a result of the November 11th breakthrough between the U.S. and China and the further COP20 institutionalization of this breakthrough on a global basis, the world community is finally on the threshold of a full consensus of action steps to take following the December 2015 heads of state COP meeting in Paris.  Currently, all the countries in the world are committed to preparing their voluntary plans (based on loosely-shared parameters and metrics).    Those plans are expected to be delivered in the spring of 2015 for discussion, review and fine-tuning during the remainder of the 2015 calendar year.  In December, the heads of state of the world community will convene to formally agree and commit to this set of  national action-plans representing the entire world community.

Conclusion (and Teaser for Next Installment)

It’s not perfect, but it’s a start.  As someone who rowed crew, I’m a believer in everybody pulling their oar in the same direction even if the level of output varies.  At the global level, the United Nations is far from perfect but it’s all we got (and we in the United States need to recognize that we had a disproportionate voice in making it what it is).

President Obama’s State of the Union address today will lay out some of the roadmap — past and future — which I’ve more minutely and ponderously described here.  He will do so because the risk of de-stabilizing climate change perennially jostles with global terrorism at the very top of the country’s national security threat-list.  He’ll do so for other reasons, though — reasons that go beyond U.S. national security interest.  At the individual level of morality, we each need to think about the impact of our decisions and our actions for those we live with and for those who will follow later.  At the species level (where morality does not really play a part but evolutionary survival does), it would be nice to emerge a winner — a species that figures out how to survive and, in doing so, recognizes its interdependence with the rest of the planet, sentient and non-sentient.

Having tried to do the big picture here, I’ll be back soon to focus on the U.S.-China element of this global equation.  That’s the part of this formula that I have been working with since 2006.  I hope that my broad brushstrokes in this piece help bring focus to understanding how important the U.S.-China piece of this global puzzle really is.  Later on, I’ll get into the fine brushwork of how well Philadelphia is positioned on the global stage to play a leading role in the U.S.-China clean energy story and, by extension, the bigger global climate change story.

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