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Obama’s mixed signals

Jake Schmidt is an expert in international climate policy. Catching up with Meng Si in Tianjin, he talked about America’s low-carbon prospects, and the need for major powers – including China – to agree on transparency.

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Jake Schmidt is international climate policy director at the US-based Natural Resources Defense Council.

 
Meng Si: The United States has a special role in international climate-change negotiations. What are the difficulties and advantages of its position?

Jake Schmidt: I think that the United States is a key player. It’s the world’s largest economy. The fact that the US didn’t move forward on the Kyoto Protocol cast a huge shadow over this international effort for years, so I think you can see that countries really want the US engaged because it’s hard to envision dealing with this issue without that.

The key for the United States is not just to come to an international process and say that it can do something, but actually to be able to deliver it at home – and that’s always been the tension. I think with the failure of the Senate to take action on a climate bill, now the Obama administration has to make do with the set of tools that it already has. So it has authority under the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Clean Air Act to regulate emissions from both existing and new facilities. It has the authority to establish new vehicle standards and has begun to do that. It has authority to implement standards for how much energy appliances can use and to send guidance on how much energy buildings can produce.

So the administration is going to have to make the strongest case for taking action only under these existing authorities and be able to tell the world what kind of direction that is leading to in terms of overall emissions. Both Todd Stern and Jonathan Pershing have continued to reiterate that the administration is sticking to its commitment to cut emissions by 17% over 2005 levels. That is a signal that is critical to the world.

MS: We know that Obama has made promises on clean energy. What is the president’s plan for the development of the fossil-fuel industry? How does it differ from energy strategy in China?

JS: In the United States, we had proposals for 150 new coal-fired power plants a couple of years ago. I think about 110 of those have been officially put in the trash bin. And part of that is because of the future carbon regulations that have been set. Part of that is because of lawsuits on the ground. And part of that is because the financial industry has seen investing in a 40 or 50-year power plant that burns coal, with the prospects of climate controls in the future, as a bad economic investment.

And so we’ve seen a much greater shift from building coal-fired power plants in the US to much greater investment in natural gas, but also in renewables, wind and solar. The president doesn’t make determinations for which coal-fired power plants are built in the US, that’s left to the market, but the president sets the legal framework and the political direction for those investment decisions. So, some of this is because Obama has sent the signal that climate control is for real in the United States. But also, in terms of the US stimulus, we’ve seen the largest investment in US history in renewables and energy efficiency. The market has seen those signals and has started to shift.

We won’t see as much clarity in terms of those investments as many companies want because of the failure of the Senate to take action, but I don’t think we’ll have a shift where people basically say, “OK, well, climate control is never going to happen in the US, so therefore we just build as many coal-fired power plants as we can.” In contrast, China sort of has this dual challenge, which is how does it meet the growing energy needs of an increasing middle class, while at the same time making significant investments in non-fossil fuel energies.

The key for both countries is to create a framework that encourages the fastest transition out of CO2-emitting plants and the quickest deployment of renewables, so that the cost of those renewables comes down. At the same time, there is a huge amount of low hanging fruit in terms of energy efficiency.

MS: What about the petroleum industry?

JS: On that front, the [Obama] administration has been mixed in some sense. It sent a pretty clear signal from day one that it was going to try to improve the efficiency of vehicles. But at the same time they’ve shown an interest in expanding offshore oil investments. We think that offshore oil investments are the wrong signal. We should be weaning ourselves off foreign oil and domestic oil as we move to a low-carbon future. And that can be done through improving our efficiency, while at the same time better tapping into existing oil and creating incentives for taking that CO2 and putting it underground and permanently sequestering it.

MS: On what conditions will the United States move forward in international negotiations? On the MRV [measuring, reporting and verification] issue, there are still people in China who say that implementing it would mean China has to provide its development plan to developed countries – and that those demands are kind of insulting.

JS: I won’t fully speak for what the US is thinking, but in terms of what they’ve said they’re pretty clear that they would like an outcome in Cancún, but that that outcome has to contain agreement on all the elements captured effectively in the Copenhagen Accord and that includes the transparency provisions, the MRV provisions. I think that Todd [Stern] has been very clear in all of his statements, which is without forward progress on MRV in Cancún, the prospects of agreeing on things that other countries want in terms of finance and adaptation of clean energy are not going to happen. 

And it’s not just the US that’s been saying that, Europeans and Australians have been saying similar things. I still continue to believe that it is in China’s interests to be able to show what it’s doing in a credible way. It’s not a matter of taking the development plan and letting others criticise it. It’s more creating the confidence that China’s really moving forward. The question is: isn’t it in China’s interest to actually tell that story in an effective way?

Words mean different things to different people. I don’t think we are creating a framework where individual people will be walking around the country looking at whether or not that smoke stack really is emitting as much pollution as you said it was. The US wouldn’t allow other countries to walk around and test their smoke stacks, so I don’t think they should expect that of others and I don’t think that they do. Similarly, we can’t have an international response to climate change which doesn’t provide us with basic information about how much progress we’re making towards dealing with this challenge.

MS: What is the outlook for green jobs in the US?

JS: Well, there are not enough. We know for example that a dollar invested in clean-energy jobs produces four times as many jobs as in the fossil-fuel industry, sometimes as much as 10. If you look at the US$80 billion that was spent in the US in terms of clean energy, renewables, energy efficiency, it created four times as many jobs as if we had spent that US$80 billion [534 billion yuan] on fossil fuels, coal and oil. If you talk to the labour unions in the US, they are convinced that the future of their industry, the future of their jobs is on the clean-energy basis. They really, I think finally, believe that. And I think the key is to turn these prospects into delivery and I think unfortunately politicians haven’t done a good enough job of creating policy frameworks to send those signals.

All those industries in China, for example, that have popped up to create renewables. Those facilities are massive and lots of people are manufacturing solar and wind turbines. The Chinese have really seen a huge opportunity to create jobs and new industries and are taking advantage of it. Unfortunately the US has not made as significant strides of late as other countries.

MS: And the renewable industry doesn’t have as much influence as the fossil-fuel industry.

JS: The opponents to action always have a lot of money because they’ve built up huge industry and they can send misinformation to the American public and to the global public. And we continue to believe that people will see their claims as that – myths, not reality. The impacts of climate change are real, being felt everyday. If you look at what’s happening in Pakistan and Russia, it’s hard not to see the forecast of the future and I think that people will have to see that things are happening now as we speak.

But the other thing is that the fossil-fuel industry, which supposedly is defending them, is not creating new jobs for them. The new jobs are in clean energy and energy-efficiency deployment and not in old industries of the past – dinosaur industries as opposed to future industries.

 

Meng Si is managing editor in chinadialogue’s Beijing office.

Homepage image from The White House shows president Barack Obama with solar executives in Florida.

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Default thumb avatar
gaidee

喊破嗓子也没用

奥巴马口才出色,那不是一般人能比的。奥巴马是美国总统,但是很多问题需要市场决定,也就是利益,特别是现实利益决定,你总统也不过就当个几年时间,下一届是不是你谁也说不准。美国是世界最大的市场经济国家、最大的经济体、最大的民主国家、科学技术最发达的国家、发明创造最活跃的国家、最富裕的国家,可是在关乎全人类的重大问题上都犹犹豫豫,也可能是无能为力,靠发展中国家“骑车”的人,怎么能追上气候变化这匹“脱缰野马“呢?你追在它屁股后面,即便用个高音喇叭喊啊喊,估计也不顶事。这个事情,还要看中国,信不信?

It's no use shouting until your voice goes

Obama is very eloquent, which cannot be compared to the average person. Obama is the American President, but many issues have to be decided on by the market. That is, interest and especially real interest. He is only the president for a few years time and who the next one will be, no one can say. the United States is the world's largest market economy, largest economic body, largest democratic country, the country with the most developed scientific technology, the most dynamic inventions and the wealthiest country. However, there is hesitation when it comes to important issues to do with mankind. Maybe they can't do anything to help, but how will they catch up with the "wild horses" of climate change if they rely on the “pedalers" of developing countries? Even if you were chasing behind them and shouting at them with a loudspeaker, it probably would have no effect. Do you believe that this is all going to be up to China?

Default thumb avatar
britneys

骑车的人

“可是在关乎全人类的重大问题上都犹犹豫豫,也可能是无能为力,靠发展中国家“骑车”的人,怎么能追上气候变化这匹“脱缰野马“呢?” 为什么这样说呢???

pedalers

why say so ???However, there is hesitation when it comes to important issues to do with mankind. Maybe they can't do anything to help, but how will they catch up with the "wild horses" of climate change if they rely on the “pedalers" of developing countries?

Default thumb avatar Reply arrow
gaidee

出奇招嘛

骑车人平均速度慢那是不假,往往赶不上四个轮子的汽车。往往不代表总是这样。按照龟兔赛跑的寓言故事,往往是爬着的小乌龟能坚持到底,获得胜利。寓言故事,有时候往往就是现实的真实写照。美国的政客,或者世界的政客都是这样,用咱们的俗话说就是大忽悠,说起话来各不相让,真正干事没一个行。都按照本国巨大的惯性行事,多一个、少一个都无所谓。我的评论这么说的原因在于,最有资格做的人都不认真、努力,搞得现在没办法收场,要想取得进展,只有依靠看来不那么行的“骑车者了“。当然了,这只是预测,也有可能不成功。毕竟,撵得上兔子的乌龟不多见,想撵上兔子的乌龟更是少之又少啊。

New strategy - the turtle will win the game

It’s an obvious fact that the speed of riding a bike is usually much slower than that of car. However, it’s not always that case. The famous “The Tortoise and the Hare” told the story of the little tortoise who is usually much slower than the hare persisted and final won the game. Fables are extracted essences from the reality. American politicians or any politicians are big talkers rather than doers. So, since the rabbit is sleeping in the bush, we can only rely on the turtle to win the game. Of course, this is just a guess. Anyway it’s rare to see a tortoise catch a rabbit, moreover most of time he never even attempts to.

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scullymeng

“谈判高手”

在天津开会时在讨论一个问题,就是应该怎么评价美国的谈判技巧。
哥本哈根时突然抛出的巨额资金援助和对中国的明显施压被认为是美国获得主动的技能。但在全球共同解决气候变化问题的前提下,是否更“聪明”的高手应该是矛盾涉及的主要国家通过积极商谈、达成一致,寻求共赢,而不是至对方于不义之地,使谈判陷入僵局呢?毕竟全球化的今天,任何国家吃的“亏”都或多或少会转移到他国身上,想要别人纯亏、自己纯赚的生意已经不多见了。

"Expert Negotiators"

A question discussed at the Tianjin conference was, how should the negotiating skills of the US be evaluated?
The huge amount of financial assistance that suddenly appeared and the obvious pressure given to China during Copenhagen were considered to be techniques for the US to gain initiative. But with the premise of a global solution to the climate change problem, shouldn't more "intelligent" experts of major countries actively negotiate and reach consensus related to contradictions, seeking a win-win result, instead of treating each other unjustly and stalling negotiations? Afterall, in today's world of globalisation, "losses" of any country will more or less be transferred to other countries. It is rare to see businesses wanting net profits for themselves while wanting others to have net losses.

Default thumb avatar Reply arrow
gaidee

在商言商

既然是谈判,当然就要技巧,大大地技巧。美国人不只是谈判技巧了得,我觉得个个口才出众,实在让人佩服,想必口吃率绝对是世界最低之一。我初到美国,就惊叹美国人牙之白,齿之俐。这个不怪别人,你嘴巴笨,只能怪你自己。话都说不清,想说的说不明白,那不就是哑巴吃黄连吗?

Business is business

Since this is a negotiation, of course skills are involved, great skills. Americans are not only good at negotiation skills, I think they are all exceptionally eloquent and deserve to be admired. Surely they have one of the lowest stuttering rate in the world. When I first arrived in the United States, I was surprised by their white and bright teeth. You can't blame this on anyone, if your mouth is slow, you can only blame yourself. If you can't speak clearly or understandably, isn't that inarticulate misery?