Last year before the negotiations at Copenhagen, five countries (Australia, Costa-Rica, Japan, Tuvalu, and the United States) submitted proposals for protocols under the convention – in other words, new proposals for a legally binding climate treaty. This is important because there had not yet been discussion since Bali on what legal form the final outcome could take. In the meeting, Tuvalu proposed that a “contact group” (the UN name for a working group) be established to discuss these proposals. But a new protocol was opposed by India, China, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and others. Furthermore, the formation of a contact group was opposed by Saudi Arabia, India, Venezuela, Algeria, Kuwait, Oman, Nigeria, Ecuador, and China. This ruled out any chance of a legally binding treaty at Copenhagen, disappointed many representatives of civil society, it seemed at the time that the prospects for a strong legally binding outcome in the near-future were grim.

This year, on Wednesday Dec 1, the Conference of Parties again considered these five proposals, and a sixth proposal from Grenada on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States. Grenada called for a contact group to be established. Grenada noted that we have not yet had a discussion on legal form; and that this could provide certainty to governments, markets, and the private sector. Costa-Rica and Tuvalu also discussed their proposals and called for a contact group.

But India opposed a “formal group”, saying that in the “current context”, we should be “investing our time in deliverables of Cancún”; that “too much is on our plate”; we “need to address Kyoto instead” (perhaps a reference to Japan stating that it will not inscribe its 2020 target into the Kyoto Protocol); we should “focus on the two texts from Tianjin”; the “Article 17 proposals should be allowed to rest”; “forms should follow substance” and “let us consider substance first”.

China, which strongly opposed a contact group at Copenhagen, offered a nuanced response. They thanked Grenada and AOSIS for their proposal; they said they support the “proposal that legal form be discussed” and that the “final outcome should be a legally binding outcome”; but they “hope to have more time on other issues” and ask “is it possible that we avoid discussion separately? Maybe chair can conduct informal consultations, or maybe allow AWG-LCA consider this issue?”; and happy to “leave to the wisdom of the President” (the ‘President’ refers to the Mexican Foreign Minister who chairs the meeting). So China raised some concerns, but strongly hinted that they would not block consensus.

Saudi Arabia said that they support India and China, had concerns about the future of the Kyoto Protocol (probably also relates to Japan’s statement, even though Saudi Arabia is a far worse polluter than Japan, and has no commitments under the Kyoto Protocol), and that it would be better to focus on the negotiations still taking place.

Some countries who had opposed a contact group last year supported one this year, including South Africa and Venezuela. The 2011 negotiations will happen in South Africa, and they stated that the lack of discussion on legal form has been a barrier.

The call for a contact group was also supported by Guatemala, Cuba, the Maldives, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nauru, Cook Islands, the EU, the Dominican Republic, Australia, Vanuatu, the Marshall Islands, St Lucia, Guyana, and some observer organisations.

The Mexican Foreign Minister (the ‘President’) resolved to set up a contact group, stating (and I paraphrase somewhat):

We have had a very important exchange on a question that is of transcendental importance for many delegations. We have heard many opinions. A clear testimony to diversity of points of view and complexity. We must recognize that in the exercise of sovereign governments and they are insisting that proposals discussed. Proposals refer to subjects being dealt with in negotiations in LCA and KP. And we still don’t have clarity on how negotiations will conclude. Indispensible that negotiations will proceed quickly and make progress and consolidate decisions. I propose we establish discussion in the form of a contact group that will have as its exclusive aim to provide this space to allow exchange of proposals including Grenada, Costa Rica, Tuvalu. But I think delegations have clearly expressed that proposals relate to subsequent work. If there is agreement to establish this dialogue, and better understand opinions that differ, I don’t want that to be detriment to discussions of two working groups. I repeat this dialogue should not lead to a negative effect that would reduce urgency that we apply to negotiations.

It is worth keeping the role of a “legally binding” agreement in perspective – the point of an agreement is to provide confidence that commitments will be kept. Making it legally binding could perhaps help with that – but what will make a real difference is domestic legislation that will send a signal to the world that a commitment will be met. The only sort of domestic legislation (apart from perhaps shutting down steel production and imposing blackouts) that can achieve this is some sort of carbon price. Australia – for example – is highly unlikely to increase its 2020 emission reductions target beyond 5 percent until there is a carbon price.

The fact that countries changed their position to a cooperative one on this issue, and were willing to compromise, is a positive sign for the negotiations. Compared to Copenhagen (so far) there seems to be less uncompromising positions, there hasn’t been any walkouts, there seems to be more confidence in the country hosting the negotiations, and less late nights. All of this could change, but there is reason for cautious optimism.

The second day of negotiations consisted of ‘informal’ negotiations (where countries actually negotiate, but observers are not allowed); and plenaries of the subsidiary bodies: the Subsidiary Body on Implementation (SBI) and the Subsidiary Body on Scientific and Technical Advice (SBSTA). SBSTA covered a variety of issues, ranging from the new space-based Global Climate Observation System to whether Carbon Capture and Storage should be included in the Clean Development Mechanism (an issue that seems to attract strong passions, which I find somewhat curious, because I doubt that CCS would ever be cheap enough to generate CDM credits). Video of these plenaries should soon be online here.

An issue in SBSTA that attracted strong disagreement today was the what to do about emissions from international shipping and aviation. At the moment, emissions from these industries don’t come under any jurisdiction, so the question is what to do about it. In particular, whether this should be addressed through the UNFCCC, or the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and International Maritime Organisation (IMO). This issue is significant not only because of their emissions (about 420 Mt/yr for aviation and 870 Mt/yr for maritime emissions) but also because significant amounts of international finance could be raised from getting these industries to pay for their emissions. The UN Advisory Group on Finance suggest that somewhere between $3 billion and $25 billion could be raised per year by 2020, and this could be used for adaptation and mitigation in developing countries.

While the ICAO and IMO are doing something to reduce emissions for these sectors, it is unclear whether they will do enough. It is also less clear whether they would be willing to provide finance for mitigation and adaptation in developing countries. The ICAO stated in the ICAO/IMO submissions to SBSTA that:

The international aviation sector should not be singled out as a source of revenues for all other sectors. This is likely to result in a shortage of resources to facilitate mitigation activities by the international aviation sector itself, and in a disproportionate contribution of resources from this sector as compared to other economic sectors.

This comment, by bringing up the possibility of “a shortage of resources” for the aviation sector, totally ignores the ability of these industries to pass on costs. If the aviation sector had to pay $20 per tonne CO2, then people like me might have to pay $100 more for a flight between Australia and Cancun. This is small compared to the cost of the flight, so the airlines would be able to pass costs onto consumers and the effect on the income of the aviation industry would be small.

The dodgy economics from the ICAO comment is similar to the sort of thing that would be expected from an industry group representing Australian polluters, one would expect more reasoned analysis from an international organisation. This hardly inspires confidence in the ICAO to play its fair part in paying the costs that its emissions in others.

But there was considerable support in SBSTA for ICAO and IMO to address emissions in these sectors, rather than the UNFCCC. Many developing countries would benefit from finance if there was a strong UNFCCC regime regulating these industries. But many of the countries who supported emissions to be addressed by ICAO/IMO were developing countries. Countries that supported emissions being addressed by that ICAO and IMO rather than the UNFCCC included Panama, Singapore, Cuba (representing Argentina, Brazil, China, Saudi Arabia and India), Ukraine, the Bahamas (who said that the IMO should be the only forum for these issues), South Africa (who raised concerns about maritime emissions being used as a funding source) and others. The EU highlighted the urgent need to address emissions from transport, and that this should take place in the AWG-LCA. The US pointed out that ICAO/IMO do not hame “common but differentiated responsibilities” in their mandates.

There could be huge potential for international transport to finance mitigation and adaptation in developing countries, but this will be extremely difficult, especially after these events. Using maritime emissions for finance will be particularly difficult.

The climate negotiations commenced today in Cancún. Today was dominated by opening plenaries, these are open to observers, and webcasts are made available on the internet. These generally consist of set piece speeches from the main negotiating blocs. Things of interest that happened include:

  1. PNG proposed that in the case that the UNFCCC cannot reach a consensus on something, as a last resort there should be some sort of vote, which would then require some sort of supermajority to make a decision. This proposal was opposed by Bolivia, India, and Saudi Arabia.
  2. The previous negotiations this year on long-term cooperative action have resulted in very dirty text with a large amount of brackets (parts of the text where there is not consensus, and which would could be deleted), and a large amount of pages. The chair has prepared here own text to facilitate negotiations. Various Parties (countries) have made comments or criticisms of the text, but it seems like it will be a useful basis to go forward.
  3. Japan made a comment in the opening plenary of the ad-hoc working group on further commitments under the Kyoto Protocol that its 25 percent emission reduction target is not a target that it plans to inscribe into the Kyoto Protocol.

Unlike Copenhagen, participants haven’t had to line up for long to get into the venue -instead the shuttle buses have been slowed down by a traffic jam that was caused by security arrangements. The main venue where the negotiations have taken place – the “Moon Palace Hotel” – is a giant fancy golf resort but where people who are not staying at the hotel have been subjected to bad expensive food and bad coffee. There have been problems with the internet all day, with it only working intermittently. Not ideal for getting things done.

The next UN climate conference, the 16th Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC, will commence on November 29 in Cancun, Mexico. ClimateDilemma will be attending these talks, will blog about what is going on, and also provide more up-to-minute updates via Twitter.

The stage was set at some negotiations earlier this year in Tianjin, China. It is unlikely that there will be anything like a comprehensive legally binding climate protocol emerge from Cancun, so the focus instead is on a “balanced set of decisions” on issues such as finance, adaptation, reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries, technology, and possibly measurement, reporting and verification (transparency). The key stumbling block is agreement between the US and China on these issues. These difficulties were illustrated when in response to a speech by US Special Envoy on Climate Change Todd Stern, Chinese negotiator Su Wei referred to the US as what has been translated as a “pig preening itself in a mirror“.

As has been pointed out by Angel Hsu from Yale, this reference is to the character Zhu Ba Jie, from the Chinese novel Journey to the West. A well known television adaptation in some western countries is the show Monkey, a dubbed version of a Japanese television series. This will be particularly well known to Australians who grew up in the 1980’s (such as myself), when the show was very popular. In Monkey, Zhu Ba Jie is known as “Pigsy”.


Pigsy, portayed by Toshiyuki Nishida, from the opening credits for "Monkey"

Todd Stern’s speech made a number of salient points about the negotiations, but downplayed the problem of lack of US domestic progress. Lack of domestic progress is a major issue – the World Resources Institute has done a study investigating how much state-based approaches and regulation could reduce emissions without national legislation, and their most ambitious scenario has emissions lowered by 12 percent, which falls short of the 17 percent commitment. Stern also summarised the US negotiating position which is to not support action on “financing, technology, adaptation and forests” unless there is progress on mitigation and transparency.

Todd Stern made several comments that relate to China:

  • He stated that “you cannot build a system premised on the notion that China should be treated the same as Chad” and made some comments on China’s emission statistics;
  • He pointed out the “political reality” that it would be impossible to get support from US congress for an agreement that required action from the US but not from China and emerging markets;
  • He stated that in Tianjin, “Chinese negotiators have acted almost as though the Accord never happened, insisting on legally binding commitments for developed countries and purely voluntary actions for even the emerging markets”. He also stated that Chinese negotiators have merely listed their targets as a “fyi”, with “no political commitment to implement them”.

Stern’s statement that China should not be treated the same as Chad does bring up an important point about the way developed and developing countries are divided up in the Kyoto Protocol. The developed countries are specified as “Annex I Parties” which includes relatively poor countries such as Turkey, but does not include very rich countries including Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. It also does a mediocre job of distinguishing between different levels of per-capita emissions – Australia and the US have far higher per-capita emissions than France, and the highest per-capita emitter, Qatar, is not an Annex I country. The Kyoto Protocol has no mechanism non-Annex I countries to automatically become Annex I countries.

But the key issue is not so much whether emission reduction commitments are legally binding, it is whether countries will meet those commitments. Stern points this out in his speech, and so it is curious that Stern attaches so much attention to the legal status of China’s commitments. China is quick to point out that their targets are not legally binding, and stated in their Copenhagen Accord submission that “please note that the above-mentioned autonomous domestic mitigation actions are voluntary in nature”. China is perhaps more likely to meet its target than the US, and China has been implementing measures such as blackouts and slashing steel production in order to meet its domestic energy intensity target. So Stern’s statement that “Chinese negotiators have acted as though the Accord never happened” is not very fair. The other key issue is the ambition of the commitments themselves – an international agreement must be designed in such a way that the ambition of commitments can be readily ramped up – Kyoto has failed to do this, with countries preferring to take on weak targets and sell “hot air” (when countries – such as Russia – get allocated emission targets that are greater than business as usual emissions).

The largest barrier is Congress, in particular the US Senate. Ratifying a treaty requires 67 out of 100 votes, and even getting the Senate to vote on legislation requires 60. The US failed to pass climate legislation last year because it couldn’t get 60 votes in the Senate. If any institution was to resemble Pigsy, it would be the US Senate. But there have been failure at the White House as well: it made major strategic blunders when climate legislation was before the Senate; and failed spectacularly when it comes to framing and messaging, including on climate change. Congress is difficult because the Republicans are taking an extremist denialist position, but this could be politically damaging to the Republicans and untenable if the White House and/or the Democrats put pressure on the Republicans over climate change and framed the issue to be one of Republican obstruction, instead of one of “Democrats seeking bipartisanship”.

Issues with Congress and the strategic US-China relationship mean that there is little prospect for a fair legally binding and ambitious ‘top-down’ agreement in the near future, and that probably means the next decade. Since Copenhagen, the challenge is to ramp up emission reductions in a ‘bottom-up’ world, and turn political commitments into political action. We know from implementation theory and literature on private provision of public goods that if countries can commit to increase their reductions if others do the same, then a situation that is previously a “prisoner’s dilemma” becomes transformed into a situation where there is likely to be a cooperative outcome. Furthermore, if there is an expectation that there will be a legally binding agreement in the future that is fair, high per-capita emitters will have a strong incentive now to start reducing their emissions.

Progress in Cancún on transparency, financing, technology, adaptation and forests could ultimately facilitate cooperation on mitigation. One reason for optimism is that developing countries including India have made concrete proposals on measurement, reporting and verification (i.e. transparency), so the key reason for obstruction from the US may be resolved. But anything can happen in these negotiations, so only time will tell.

Much of the debate on carbon pricing mechanisms is on whether to go with a carbon tax (a price based approach), or with cap-and-trade (a quantity based approach). It should not be forgotten than any carbon pricing instrument is far better than having no carbon price at all. Often debates on carbon pricing instruments ignore various hybrid approaches that incorporate mechanisms such as price ceilings (a maximum carbon price), price floors (a minimum carbon price), and allowance reserves – which we will discuss here in more detail. It is disappointing that hybrid approaches sometimes get ignored, because the economics of uncertainty suggests that these approaches are superior in the sense of having the lowest expected costs. But governments may have other policy objectives than minimising costs in the presence of uncertainty, and hybrid approaches can be useful for these as well. Because of this, hybrid approaches to carbon pricing could lead to the consensus required to introduce a carbon price into Australia.

An allowance reserve is a little bit like a price ceiling. When an emissions trading scheme has a price ceiling, the government makes a commitment to sell an unlimited amount of extra permits at the ceiling price. With an allowance reserve, there are two differences: the amount of extra permits is limited; instead of selling them at a fixed ‘ceiling’ price, they are auctioned at a reserve price. An allowance reserve provides some price stability, but unlike a price ceiling, the total amount of emissions is also capped.

In Australia, a proposed emissions trading scheme (the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme or CPRS) failed to pass through parliament because the Liberal Party got taken over by deniers of climate change; but also failed to get the support of the Greens because the targets were too weak, and there were concerns that it risks ‘locking in’ weak targets. An issue with the CPRS is that it would have risked locking in a weak target range for too long – maybe 5-10 years but possibly longer. But there was some sort of administrative review mechanism in around 2013 or 2014, and including some sort of review mechanism is a useful part of any solution. But the main way to get a carbon price to work effectively is through having it send a strong long term price signal to investors in long-lived assets such as buildings and power plants. This is why there is resistance to setting targets for a shorter period of time.Since the August 2010 election, the support of the Greens will be required to introduce a carbon price. The two most difficult issues are the targets themselves, and what to do about the process for setting targets.

In January 2010, the Greens proposed an interim carbon tax for Australia. The idea being to introduce a carbon tax (or fixed-price ETS) and transition to an ETS with targets decided at a later date. But when the interim target is in place, how do you provide a long-term carbon price signal? This is important because assets such as power stations and buildings are very long-lived, so the future carbon price is what drives investment decisions. A solution is that after transitioning to an ETS with a cap on emissions, it should maintain a price floor. If the price floor is the same as the level of the carbon tax, and it steadily increases by some percentage above the rate of inflation, there will still be a strong long term price signal.

Introducing a fixed price beforehand will help, but there is no doubt that the issue of targets will be difficult even if a interim fixed price is introduced. One approach that could make this less difficult is to use an allowance reserve.  Consider the following approach: the amount of ‘normal’ permits (which are auctioned with a reserve price that is the same as the floor price, e.g. $20) adds up to enough emissions for a 25 percent reduction by 2020. But there is an allowance reserve auctioned at a reserve price of $40, and if all of them are auctioned that adds up to a 5 percent reduction by 2020. The Greens are happy, because if the carbon price is $40 or less, emissions will be less that the weak 5 percent target; and if the carbon price is less than $20, emissions will be less than 25 percent below 2020. The Government is happy, because they get to keep their targets, but gain some environmental credibility. Investors are happy, because they have long-term information about the carbon price.

If you wanted, you could have more than one allowance reserve. For example, you could have normal permits that add up to a 40 percent reduction; Allowance Reserve 1, that is priced higher than the normal permits and goes up to a 25 percent reduction; and Allowance Reserve 2, that has an even higher reserve price, and takes you up to a 5 percent reduction.

By going beyond the “carbon tax vs ETS” paradigm and thinking creatively, it may be possible to forge enough of a consensus to introduce a carbon price to Australia. Hybrid approaches to carbon pricing not only are advantageous in terms of the economics of uncertainty; they also provide us with new approaches for dealing with political realities.

An earlier version of this post appeared as a comment responding to Tim Hollo’s blog post ‘Is an ETS automatically more ambitious than a tax?’ at Crikey’s Rooted blog.

The absence of a comprehensive legally binding global deal has sometimes been used as an excuse for lack of policy action. Australia’s conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott claimed that the outcome at Copenhagen “vindicated his party’s decision not to support the Federal Government’s emissions trading scheme legislation”; the absence of an international deal was also an excuse when Australia’s former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd abandoned a proposed emissions trading scheme. But how much does slow international progress really matter?

In a report for the World Bank and a journal article, political scientist and Nobel Economics Prize winner Elinor Ostrom has argued that we should not wait for a ‘global solution’ to emerge from international negotiations before acting on climate change. Instead, action on climate change should occur at all scales. These include individual, community, municipal, regional, and national scales as well as the international scale.

Ostrom argues for a polycentric approach for several reasons:

  1. There is evidence that people are more likely to be cooperative than predicted by conventional game theory. People are in particular more likely to be cooperative when they trust each other to be reciprocators. For this reason, it is possible to have cooperative action without negotiating a ‘global solution’.
  2. Action on climate change can also lead to positive externalities such as clean air. Clean air is particularly relevant to China, where air pollution is a major problem.
  3. At any scale, policies may encounter errors, but without trial and error, learning cannot occur. A polycentric approach facilitates learning at multiple scales.

What implications does this have for critical areas of climate policy, such as technology and carbon pricing? Policies such as research and development, as well as investment in renewable energy, all help to drive down mitigation costs. Like clean air, this is a positive externality that we need more of.

Two major issues when trying to negotiate an international climate agreement are participation and compliance. This is one reason why legally binding agreements are desirable, but designing a treaty to maximize participation and compliance is difficult. When a country makes a commitment to reduce its emissions, how do we know it will meet this commitment? Action at multiple scales means that meeting such a commitment is much more likely. If a country introduces an emissions trading scheme, it will then be highly likely that it meets the target specified by the scheme. But in the United States, the national government did not successfully pass legislation. Fortunately there are regional measures in the United States that are reducing emissions: the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative is an emissions trading scheme that operates in ten states; eleven states and provinces in the US and Canada are developing the Western Climate Initiative; and seven states and provinces in the US and Canada are developing the Midwestern Greenhouse Gas Accord. These approaches make it easier for the United States to argue that it will reduce emissions by 17 percent by 2020.

Because domestic policies and measures add credibility to countries’ targets, a climate agreement with a mechanism for countries to list their policies and measures as well as targets is more likely to be successful. The Copenhagen Accord had annexes for developed countries to specify their targets and developing countries to specify policies and measures. It would make sense for climate agreements to have developed countries specify policies and measures as well.

The good news is that action on climate change is occurring at multiple scales. If Ostrom is right, there are reasons to be optimistic about the prospects for long-term cooperation. But there still are advantages to more agreement at an international level, including less excuses for inaction from politicians.

Some sections of Australia’s business community (as well as the Abbott opposition) are concerned that we should not go ahead of the rest of the world on a carbon price. This ignores the fact that much of the rest of the world is already moving ahead of Australia on both carbon pricing in particular, and climate change mitigation more generally.

The Australian Financial Review (unfortunately paywalled) reported on Thursday September 16 that a number of CEOs have made the above argument. These include QBE Insurance CEO Frank O’Halloran who said “we ought to be patient and go with the other major developed countries around the world and not try to be the first cab off the rank”; Coca-Cola Amatil CEO Terry Davis who said “I don’t think we should lead the world”. The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry has claimed that “unilaterally imposing an emissions trading scheme has low business support”. Tony Abbott, who once said that climate change was “crap”, recently said that “a go-it-alone carbon tax in Australia would be an act of economic self-harm”.

One CEO who does not share this opinion is BHP CEO Marius Kloppers who has called for a carbon price to be introduced in Australia. The speech where Kloppers said this can be downloaded here (pdf). We will know whether Kloppers is serious when we find out whether Minerals Council CEO Mitch Hooke continues his scaremongering about a carbon price or not.

I will list below some of the climate action around the world that makes it impossible for Australia to “go-it-alone” on carbon pricing. The most comprehensive carbon pricing is in the EU ETS, where a carbon price partially contributed to emissions covered by the EU ETS falling by 11 percent in 2009.

Japan is presently drafting plans for an emissions trading scheme to come into effect from 2013. It will cover emissions from large emitters, include provisions for domestic and international offsets, and compensation for trade exposed industries. Japan already has a voluntary ETS in operation, and a mandatory ETS covering Tokyo.

South Korea, which does have commitments under the Kyoto Protocol, is also planning on introducing an ETS. Korea has already passed a ‘Basic Law on Low-carbon and Green Growth’, which mandates a cap on emissions. It is planning to pass further legislation to make this cap operational.

Although the United States has not yet passed national legislation, state-based approaches to carbon pricing are expanding. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative is operating in ten states; eleven states in the US and Canada are developing the Western Climate Initiative and seven states in the US and Canada are developing the Midwestern Greenhouse Gas Accord. New Zealand now also has an emissions trading scheme. China has been dramatically reducing steel production in order to meet energy efficiency targets and has been driving down the costs of solar and wind power with its clean energy industries.

As was pointed out by Paul Gilding in Climate Spectator, “we are in as much danger of leading in action on climate change as we are of leading on indigenous health”. The risk for Australian Business is not that we will go ahead of the rest of the world on climate policy – it is already too late for that. The risk is that lack of climate policy and high Australian per-capita emissions will lead to our industries being frozen out of markets in the future.