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Yes, We Can.


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15 December 2008, 10:33 AM
Negotiation blueprint achieved

A miracle, just take a look around: this inescapable earth.
– Wislawa Szymborska, Polish poet and Nobel Laureate

Yes, we can.

As Martin wrote earlier in the week, the negotiations that just concluded in Poznan fell short of expectations. But take heart – the talks did deliver on the fundamental objective of providing a negotiation blueprint for an agreement that can be signed next year in Copenhagen.

There was no movement though on the issues at the heart of the new agreement – how much industrialized countries will cut their emissions; what they expect in return from major emerging economies like China and India; and how much finance and technology transfer for low-carbon initiatives will be provided to developing countries.

The global financial crisis was always in the background … even the European Union, historically a leader on climate change, struggled to conclude its climate and energy package. The package holds to reducing carbon emissions by 20 percent by 2020, but gives away too many carbon credits for free, grants broad exceptions to major emitters like coal-fired power plants and heavy industry, and allows too many "offsets" whereby countries can reduce less emissions at home if they invest in green projects overseas. This may change though, as the EU remains committed to a 30 percent reduction if a global deal is agreed in Copenhagen.

Developing countries, already feeling the devastating impacts of climate change – droughts and floods, water shortages, salt water intrusion, increased food insecurity – are, of course, looking for much more than emissions cuts from wealthy countries. Climate change is imposing enormous additional costs on vulnerable countries’ ability to achieve their development and poverty-reduction goals.

The most significant decision taken in Poznan gave developing countries easier access to the Adaptation Fund, which gathers a levy on carbon trading under the UN Clean Development Mechanism to help low-income countries protect their societies and economies against the impacts of climate change. Everyone knows that the money in the pot, about US $80 million, is far short of the $15or 20 billion (or more) that will be needed each year. To make up the difference developing countries wanted to expand the levy to cover other kinds of carbon trade; for the moment their proposal was rejected, but it will nevertheless be a key part of the horse-trading over the coming year on the road to Copenhagen. Proposals by the G77 and China for a technology transfer program to set the Global South on a path to low-carbon development were similarly rebuffed by wealthy countries.

Nevertheless, Yvo de Boer, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) put a positive spin on it, saying that: "Governments have sent a strong political signal that despite the financial and economic crisis, significant funds can be mobilized for both mitigation and adaptation in developing countries with the help of a clever financial architecture and the institutions to deliver the financial support." He added that "Doing a deal in Copenhagen is, to an important extent, about engaging developing countries, and an important part of engaging countries is providing funds. Politically, this was not the time to do it."

So what can we do? The US has a year to get domestic climate legislation on track before Copenhagen. Senator John Kerry, seen by many as Obama’s unofficial representative in Poznan, said: "The U.S. has to act, we must lead and we need to have mandatory emissions targets."

President-elect Obama has put a "Green Team" in place that shows his administration will hit the ground running with a new US climate policy. But it won’t be smooth sailing – he’ll need all our support to repower America with renewable energy, and set ambitious emissions reduction targets. The new administration also has the legal authority in hand to give marching orders to the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate CO2 and other climate change pollutants under the Clean Air Act.

We have to start reducing emissions now. In the U.S. and around the world, governments are making decisions that will keep us locked into a high-emissions energy sources that make it more difficult to achieve our reduction goals, like building new coal-fired power plants that will spew carbon dioxide and other pollutants for the next 30 to 50 years. We have to stop those. We must make sure there are viable options for reducing our overall energy use and for getting the energy we do use from twenty-first century renewable energy sources. And we must understand the harm that climate change is already causing to our wild places and wildlife, and take steps to reduce those impacts.

Earthjustice is working hard on all these fronts, and more. But we are not doing it alone. While Martin and I were in Poznan, we were always aware that Earthjustice’s work wouldn’t be possible if it weren't for the deep concern and generosity of our supporters. In spirit, we were all there together, calling on world leaders to move quickly to solve this problem for our generation and those to come.

In a speech Friday afternoon, former vice president Al Gore told the assembled delegates that "We, the human species, have arrived at a moment of fateful decision….The truth is that the goals we are reaching toward are incredibly difficult, and even a goal of 450 parts per million, which seems so difficult today, is inadequate. We will soon need to toughen that goal to 350 parts per million."

He closed, to thunderous applause, with these words: "I would like to relay to you a message that I heard from the people of the United States of America this year, that I think is very relevant to the task the world is facing over this next year. Yes, we can."

Positive attitude means nothing without action--the two must work hand in hand. Yesterday while commuting on the bus, I heard a person behind me confirm that Honda has developed a zero-emissions output automobile, but unfortunately US tariffs only allow 5,000 or so into our country before it becomes economically prohibitive for Honda to import. That is the kind of barrier the American people and the Earth can no longer afford. Meanwhile our auto companies get a bail-out: where are their environmentally friendly cars? Your average American can barely afford a hybrid. This needs to change. It should be the other way around: only the rich can afford (and be brash and stupid enough) a climate-killing car like the Hummer or a used Ford. For 20 years I've tried to find a reasonably-priced environmentally friendly vehicle: Saturn's electric car in the mid-'90s was priced beginning at $30,000 and the cheapest hybrid I found a few years ago only drove 8 miles per hour and cost $15,000. These are not acceptable choices. Government needs to get involved to make these choices not merely approachable but attractive to the general public. It's as simple as that. The motto should therefore be not that we can, but that we better! We must! We can't afford to wait! We only have one planet...

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