U.N. Seeks to Raise 'Level of Ambition' in World Climate Regulations

The 2009 Copenhagen climate summit may have failed, but its objectives, and the United Nations’ determination to realize them, are very much alive.

Global airline carbon taxes, taxes on shipping, sweeping changes in land use, and an even bigger squeeze on world-wide greenhouse emissions—including tougher U.S. emissions limits and enforcement —have been under intense discussion at a series of discreet international “workshop” meetings fostered by the U.N. in the past six months.

The gatherings aim at raising the stakes in the “climate change” agenda, while keeping new actions as much as possible under the cloak of purely domestic activities for each nation involved.

Documents summarizing the workshop proceedings will be presented to yet another U.N. gathering in Panama starting October 1, under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The summary documents make clear that the governments of many Western developed countries—including the U.S.— are still hoping to increase the “level of ambition” of commitments they made in the wake of the failed Copenhagen climate summit to undertake drastic reductions in their carbon dioxide emissions to combat “climate change,” even without a global treaty to carve them in stone.

The main discussions, outlined in the customary dense and oblique language of U.N. climate debates, are apparently about how to get there.

Those attending the most recent workshop, held on June 9 in Bonn, included representatives of the U.S., Canada, Australia, the European Union and smaller nations such as Denmark and Ireland.

A smattering of tiny developing nations were also present. Notably absent were representatives of developing superpowers like China (the world’s No. 1 emitter of greenhouse gases) and India, or other important nations such as Brazil or Russia.

An earlier meeting, held in April, 2011 in Bangkok, ostensibly focused on the issues involved for developing countries. U.S. and European Union representatives attended, along with a number of medium-sized developing countries, but once again, China, India, Brazil and Russia were absent.

The main impetus behind the Bonn meeting was to deal with an apparent “ambition gap” in meeting the draconian greenhouse targets endorsed by the UNFCCC as necessary to keep global temperatures from rising 1.5-2 degrees Centigrade by 2050.

Among other things, the meeting discussed an “emissions gap report” prepared by the United Nations Environmental Program, which warned that a “lenient” approach to enforcing the “lowest-ambition” CO2 reduction pledges made by developed countries in the wake of Copenhagen, would only reduce CO2 levels by about 25 percent of the amount required to meet the 2-degree warming limit.

In the case of the U.S., that approach nonetheless calls for a commitment to reduce national CO2 emissions of at least 17 percent from their 2005 levels by 2020—a commitment described in a workshop technical paper as “economy-wide.”

The 17 percent figure is one of the early targets contained in the drastic 2009 Waxman-Markey bill on U.S. cap-and-trade policy, formally known as the American Clean Energy and Security Act, which died in the U.S. Senate after passing the House of Representatives in 2009.

In the U.N. technical paper, that bill is described as “pending legislation,” and references are made to even steeper greenhouse gas targets in the remainder of the stalled law-- 30 percent by 2025, a 42 percent reduction by 2030, and a final reduction target of 83 percent by 2050—provided other nations also increase their ambitions.

Click here to read comments from the U.N. Climate workshop.

Any increase in the “level of ambition” of greenhouse targets would likely be achieved by “ implementing a wide range of policies and measures across all economic sectors,” rather than a single, overall target, the document says.

Moreover, they would be enacted not through international treaties, but through lower-profile “domestic legislation” which would have the same effect, but without the furor and attention brought on by coordinated international treaty efforts.

clear that even though a full consensus on how to proceed has not been achieved, a lot of definite suggestions were coming into focus, though most were still swaddled in bland bureaucratic language. Among them:

--the “enhanced use” of global carbon trading markets and the development of “new instruments” for use in those markets, i.e., new kinds of carbon reduction certificates;

--more “market-based mechanisms” to achieve the reductions;

--“addressing emissions from international aviation and maritime transport,” which the documents make clear would also be “a possible source of climate financing,” i.e. taxes. (Only one unnamed participant nation, the document notes, “expressed its concern over the possible impacts of such measures on tourism.”)

--“enhanced” pledges of greenhouse gas reductions by developed countries, and tougher enforcement to make them stick.

--sweeping changes in land use, and the extensive use of forestry projects to cut emissions, known in UN-speak as LULUCF, for “land use, land-use change and forestry. (The accompanying technical paper that sets out national commitments says that the U.S. will “undertake a comprehensive, land-based approach that takes advantage of the broadest array” of actions.)

Without going into specific details, the workshop records declare that participants “also engaged in a discussion about the way forward for the workshop process and linkages to the formal [climate] negotiations,” which are deemed to be ongoing.

Click here to read the U.N. workshop document. 

Where does the quiet workshop process go from here?

According to the documents obtained by Fox News, some participants “suggested organizing more workshops which would focus on issues such as enhancing the level of global ambition” or the issue of how to account for greenhouse reduction claims. Others wanted more information on how to finance the sweeping changes.

The drum-beat for new taxes on international shipping and aviation has already begun. In the wake of an international agreement to increase emission standards for international merchant shipping, announced last July, both the World Wildlife Fund and Oxfam have begun calling for a new, global carbon tax of $25 per ton for maritime shipping to drive emissions down further.

The influential charities have called for the tax proposal to be considered at the next major meeting of the UNFCCC, slated for November in Durban, South Africa.

And much of the international aviation world is already in an uproar over a unilateral declaration by the European Union that it will force all airlines flying into the region to buy carbon permits if they exceed local emission standards, regardless of whether most of the emissions take place in European territory or not. The permits are intended to bring the industry into Europe’s carbon-trading system.

European officials have declared that they also intend to push for global regulation of aviation under climate change discussions at Durban..

The European action is fiercely opposed by airlines in the rest of the world, including the U.S., at least so far.

George Russell is executive editor of Fox News and can be found on Twitter @GeorgeRussell.