Not With a Bang, But…

This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but with a whimper. –T.S. Eliot

With the President headed for Mexico for a two-day summit, I was struck last week by the juxtaposition of two headlines that jumped out of a daily environmental news digest.

One headline read: “MEXICO AIMS TO BRING CO2 CUT PLAN TO CLIMATE TALKS.” The other, just above it, referring to similar efforts in this country, read: “CLIMATE BILL MAY FALL BY THE WAYSIDE.”

“With the fight over health care reform absorbing all the bandwidth on Capitol Hill,” Lisa Lerer wrote for Politico, “Democrats fear a major climate change bill may be left on the cutting-room floor this year.”

Granted, Mexico’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions is reportedly about 2%, or a tenth of the U.S. contribution, so one might argue that there’s a lesser job to do there. But with less than four months remaining before the next major U.N. climate conference, it raises the grim prospect that while other nations press on, the U.S. could arrive in Copenhagen empty-handed, which is to say without meaningful carbon legislation to show.

At the same time last week, the 16-nation Pacific Islands Forum called for a 50/50 commitment from developed nations; a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Many of those island nations are on the hot seat as rising seas levels could make them among the first to lose substantial real estate before the end of this century.

At his first climate summit for governors last fall, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger introduced a video from then President-elect Obama, in which he promised that his presidency would “mark a new chapter in America’s leadership on climate change.”

Praising the governors in attendance for their own climate initiatives, the newly elected President declared that “Too often Washington has failed to show the same kind of leadership. That will change when I take office.”

Of course “Washington” includes Congress, which is still dithering over the major carbon emissions bill championed by the new President. It squeaked through the House by nine votes and now looms as a 1,400-page pig that the Senate python will attempt to digest or regurgitate. Either way, what comes out is unlikely to closely resemble what went in.

Meanwhile the whole cap-and-trade concept has been coming under increasing scrutiny and skepticism. Last month, when the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California polled Californians on the subject, more respondents favored an out-and-out carbon tax than cap-and-trade (56% to 49%). The Western Climate Initiative, a regional cap-and-trade pact that is a keystone of California’s climate strategy, AB 32, remains in limbo while western legislatures wait on Congress.

So when the Governor convenes his second climate summit in L.A. next month, billed optimistically as “The Road to Copenhagen,” he and his fellow “subnational leaders” (Wisconsin, Michigan & Connecticut governors are currently signed up) may find that the ball is still in their court. According to a news release from the Governor’s office, “climate leaders from around the world will come together and collaborate on efforts to further the global fight against climate change.”

They’ll do it with the same question on the table as last year: Can they count on Washington to take up the reins?

Governor Gets His White House Climate Confab

Our Governor is a hard man to ignore. Less than a month ago, he and eleven other U.S. governors wrote a letter to the new President, reminding him of commitments he made to work in earnest with states on climate issues. Governor Schwarzenegger specifically recalled a line from President (then-elect) Obama’s remarks to the Governors’ Climate Summit last November: “Any governor willing to promote clean energy will have a partner in the White House.”

The January letter (this link is a .pdf download) requested a meeting with top-level members of the White House environmental team “as soon as possible…to discuss a state-federal partnership on clean energy and climate change issues.” This weekend the governors got their meeting.

The President didn’t show up but at least four high-level players did, including energy secretary Steven Chu, interior secretary Ken Salazar, EPA chief Lisa Jackson and the President’s energy and climate deputy, Carol Browner.

While no substantive announcements came out of it, Governor Schwarzenegger said afterward:

“Today’s meeting was the first step in creating a close and lasting partnership with President Obama and his administration on climate change. I look forward to working hand-in-hand with our federal partners to realize the ambitious clean energy and climate change goals I know we share, and that I know will provide a boost to our nation’s economy.”

Some remain skeptical that the path back to prosperity is paved with Green. California’s governor has been a vocal cheerleader for just such a strategy, to tackle both environmental and economic challenges.

The governors’ group’s stated goals include aggressive programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and harnessing “market mechanisms” (read that: “cap-and-trade”) to fund development of clean energy technology. They also want to “preserve and enhance state and local authority” in the regulation arena, and stave off “federal preemption” of what the states have already started.

GHG Targets: Compared to What?

cooling-tower-small.jpgSetting targets for greenhouse gas reductions has turned into a house of mirrors. It’s hard to know what anyone means when they talk about an “80% reduction” in emissions. Reader Steve Bloom raised this point in response to my January 15 post. It’s an important one.

Most of California’s targets are based on 1990 levels (also 80% by 2050). On the other hand, The USCAP plan announced last month by a national coalition of business & environmental groups, also aims for an 80% reduction by 2050–but from 2005 levels. That 15 years between 1990 and 2005 is hardly trivial. Much of the explosive development in China and India occurred during this time, as U.S. emissions were also rising.

The number that will matter the most is the one that comes out in the federal legislation, which is still being drafted. In his video address to the Governor’s Climate Summit in November, President (then-elect) Obama appeared to be using California’s aggressive goal as a benchmark when he promised to “set us on a course to reduce emissions to their 1990 levels by 2020, and reduce them an additional 80% by 2050.”

We’re hearing more voices saying that California’s 2020 target (about 15% from today’s level) is unobtainable, Stanford researcher Steve Schneider being a recent example (see Gretchen Weber’s post from 1/30). As a practical matter, this would mean cutting California’s per capita carbon footprint from 14 tons per year, down to about ten.

Lately more people seem to be looking toward the 2050 target of an 80% reduction. But for national policy, the question is still sort of hanging out there: 80% of what? It’s one that will have to be answered soon, as congressional leaders press to have a climate bill ready by Memorial Day.

Photo by Reed Galin

Pipeline to Poznan

Map courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica OnlineAs a general rule, I’d say anything that already has 789 credentialed media members covering it doesn’t need me there. That’s the announced size of the press contingent at the UN climate talks going on this week in Poznan, Poland. All those reporters should find something to write about, among the 10,696 reps from 187 countries.

And yet, expectations are not high for this round, which is described by the U.N.’s Yvo deBoer as “the halfway point” to a successor agreement for the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. DeBoer says he is hoping for substantive progress on matters like deforestation and technology transfer.

So far it’s sounding a lot like the recent Governors’ Global Climate Summit in Beverly Hills–at least until President-elect Barack Obama seized the crowd by laying out his aggressive plans for climate policy. His four-minute video greeting effectively let the air out of Poznan, which is being staffed, of course, by a U.S. delegation from the outgoing Bush administration.

Recently I had a chance to get a Poznan preview from Jonathan Pershing, a former science and climate advisor in the Clinton Administration, now at the non-profit World Resources Institute.  You can hear my radio report about California’s influence on the tone of the UN climate talks on The California Report.

Use the audio player below to hear a one-minute excerpt from my interview with Pershing.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

State Climate Strategy Hits a Sustainability Snag

3060242318_80122bcff7_m.jpgIs AB-32 sustainable? The state’s Legislative Analyst seems to think it’s a valid question.

A series of reports from the Legislative Analyst’s Office (California’s version of the federal GAO) casts doubt on the long-term viability of the nation’s most ambitious attack on climate change.

Just as the Governor was tuning up for his Climate Summit last week, the LAO released a report questioning the economics of California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, aka AB-32. The report assails the assumptions and projections made by the Air Resources Board, in estimating the effect of AB-32’s implementation on the state’s economy. The board’s “scoping plan” projects net annual savings of $16 billion.

Among the LAO’s conclusions:

– The [ARB] plan’s evaluation of the costs and savings of some recommended measures is inconsistent and incomplete. The plan does not reflect the costs and savings of all of the emissions reduction measures that it recommends.

– Macroeconomic modeling results show a slight net economic benefit to the plan, but ARB failed to demonstrate the analytical rigor of its findings. Despite its findings—slight, eventual overall benefit to the economy—the macroeconomic analysis conducted by ARB provides little insight.

– The findings are highly dependent upon key assumptions, and ARB has not performed an analysis to determine how sensitive the macroeconomic findings are to changes in the key assumptions.

– The plan fails to lay out an “investment pathway.” Despite its prediction of eventual net economic benefit, the scoping plan fails to lay out an investment pathway to reach its goals for GHG emissions levels in 2020.

The LAO found that the lion’s share of the economic benefit from AB-32 is presumed to spring from one emissions control measure, that’s actually part of a separate law (AB 1493, passed in 2002). According to the analysis, implementation of the “Pavley regulations” would account for 18% of the greenhouse gas reductions and 70% of savings and benefits attributed to AB-32 in the air board’s scoping plan. That plan is likely scheduled for formal sign-off by the board in the next few weeks.

The report was not widely distributed but was contained in a letter to Assemblyman Roger Niello (R-Sacramento), who requested the analysis.

All the angst over economic impact of AB-32 may be moot, given the findings of another recent LAO study, which warned that we may not be able to put the darn thing into effect, anyway. The state is presently keeping the program alive by borrowing tens of millions of dollars from the California Beverage Container Recycling Fund. The LAO says the Schwarzenegger administration “has failed to produce a sustainable, long-term funding plan for AB-32 implementation.”


When Mitigation Falls Short, Adapt

3042486968_0a474edd83_m.jpgWhile California has plans in place to reduce greenhouse gases, to mitigate the effects of climate change, it is only recently that the local governments have begun thinking about adaptation strategies, according to two reports released today by the PPIC.Preparing California for a Changing Climate” and “Climate Policy at the Local Level: A Survey of California’s Cities and Counties.” Both focus on what is being done currently to confront climate change and where the state and municipalities need to focus adaptation efforts, in order to prepare for future environmental changes.

According to Ellen Hanak, who co-authored both studies, while three out of  four California’s communities are “doing something” related to climate change, only half of that group is looking into adaptation strategies and developing plans for protecting community assets.

“The focus has been on bringing greenhouse gases down,” said Hanak. “Only recently have folks been looking into climate impacts.”

Adaptation is a critical element because even if the world does reduce emissions significantly, Californians still may face problems like sea level rise, increased wildfires and flooding, public health issues related to air quality and increased temperatures because of change that has already been set in motion.  The extent of these problems, of course, will depend on how successful we are with mitigation strategies.  The less successful we are at reducing greenhouse gases, the better we need to be at adapting to change.

Hanak sees the executive order issued by the Governor on Friday requiring state agencies to assess and plan for sea level rise due to climate change, which we blogged last week, as one positive step in this direction.  Because the order mandates an assessment of projected sea level rise, local governments will soon have a benchmark to use for planning their adaptation strategies.

Climate Summit Set to Start as L.A. Smolders

The Governors’ Climate Summit convenes Tuesday against the poignant–and salient–backdrop of the multiple wildfires and smoldering ruins ringing Los Angeles.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is hosting the somewhat hastily arranged conference, which is “co-hosted” by the governors of four other U.S. states; Florida, Illinois, Kansas, and Wisconsin. Governors of four other states have pledged to send delegates. Two of these states, Utah and Washington, are already partners with California in the Western Climate Initiative, which recently rolled out a framework for its regional cap & trade program, set to take effect in 2012.

Governor Schwarzenegger said in September that “all 50” US governors would be invited. Sacramento-based AP writer Samantha Young documented invitations to at least 36 governors.

Those who made it are joined by representatives from a dozen other nations, including Mexico, Brazil and importantly, China and India. These last two are linchpins in the success of any concerted effort to control emissions of greenhouse gases. Brazil can make a major contribution in the preservation of tropical forests. And Mexico–well, they’re right next door. And annoyingly, GHG emissions tend to flout international borders. It’s been estimated that on certain days, a quarter of L.A.’s air pollution can be traced to China, though today was certainly not one of them. The odor of smoke from surrounding wildfires followed me down I-5 from Castaic, into the L.A. Basin.

Tuesday’s summit agenda is dominated by breakout sessions devoted to specific sectors and topics, such as energy, transportation and cement manufacturing. Discussions will include representatives of diverse interests, from The Nature Conservancy to Wal-Mart. By Wednesday organizers expect delegates to sign a “joint declaration agreeing to pursue collaborative action to reduce greenhouse gas emission and create opportunities to grow green economies.”

I’ll be following the proceedings and blogging daily from them.

Another Climate "Summit"

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said today that he plans to host a major climate conference in November. Few details were offered for the planned Governors’ Global Climate Summit–not even a date–but there is a goal and that’s to “form a broad international alliance,” to lay a “framework” for the next round of UN-sponsored talks,  scheduled for December in Poznan, Poland. Schwarzenegger plans to invite every U.S. governor as well as provincial governors from around the world, including China.

At the conferences in Poznan and later, Copenhagen, negotiators will try to build momentum toward a meaningful international climate accord, before the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012.

In his speech before members of the Commonwealth Club of California, at San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel, the Governor took U.S. leaders to task for being “asleep at the wheel” when it comes to taking action to mitigate global warming. “We are not waiting for the federal government,” said Schwarzenegger, “We (will) continue on and push forward.”

He also had some choice words for U.S. automakers, who he said “need to get off their butts” and start building greener cars. He applauded Tesla Motors for its decision to build electric cars in San Jose, a project touted to bring 1,000 new jobs to Silicon Valley.

The Governor sidestepped a question about Proposition 10, the natural gas initiative supported by Texas entrepreneur T. Boone Pickens, saying he’ll take a position on that and other statewide ballot measures in the weeks to come.

Schwarzenegger said he would “review very carefully” SB 375, the anti-sprawl bill awaiting his signature. He said he “loves the idea” but that the bill would have effects almost as sweeping as the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006.

The Governor’s entire speech will be broadcast on KQED Radio tonight at 8 p.m., with re-broadcasts scheduled for Saturday and Sunday.