Qatar: The Waiting for the United States Continues

The United States defended its track record on fighting climate change as the Qatar climate change negotiations began last week. The US representative Jonathan Pershing claimed that the United Sates was making “enormous” efforts to slow global warming and help the poor nations most affected by it. (Associated Press, 2012) Other countries have accused the United States of consistently blocking progress in the search for a global solution to climate change particularly since the George W. Bush administration abandoned the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 treaty limiting emissions of heat-trapping gases by industrialized countries. As negotiators met for a two-week session in oil and gas-rich Qatar, U.S. delegate  Pershing suggested America deserves more credit and said: “Those who don’t follow what the U.S. is doing may not be informed of the scale and extent of the effort, but it’s enormous.” Pershing also noted that the Obama administration has taken a series of steps, including sharply increasing fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks, and made good on promises of climate financing for poor countries. (Associated Press, 2012). Thus far, the United States has not articulated any willingness to go beyond the voluntary emissions reductions commitment it made in Copenhagen three years ago.

The US apparent unwillingness to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions beyond what it is already on track to achieve is of considerable controversy in the Qatar negotiations this week because of the growing scientific concern about the potential inevitability of catastrophic warming caused by human activities.  Probably at the top of the list in order of importance of all of the issues under negotiation in Qatar is the need to increase the ambitiousness of emissions reductions commitments by nations so that that future warming is limited to 2°C. Because nations have failed to make commitments to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions to levels that will limit future warming do 2°C, there is an increasing sense of urgency among climate scientists around the world on the need for all nations to significantly increase their greenhouse gas emissions reductions commitments to their fair share of safe global emissions. This will require most nations, but particularly high-emitting nations such as the United States, to greatly increase commitments beyond those that they had made in the Copenhagen Cop in 2009.

As we have written about extensively before on, the world has been waiting for over two decades for the United States to show leadership on climate change.  See, f0r instance, The World Waits In Vain For US Ethical Climate Change Leadership As the World Warms.  Although there are many countries other than the United States that have frequently failed to respond to what justice would require of them to reduce the threat of climate change, the United States, perhaps more than any other country, has gained a reputation in the international community for its consistent unwillingness to commit to serious greenhouse gas emissions reductions during the over two decades that world has been seeking a global agreement on how to respond to climate change. 
Because the United States is such a vital player in any global solution to climate change, the US lack of response to its obligations to reduce the global threat of climate change is widely seen as an immense impediment to an urgently needed global climate change solution. And so the world continues to wait for ethical leadership from the United States on climate change at a time when climate change damages are becoming more visible around the world.

The United States according to the World Resources Institute has recently made progress on its greenhouse gas emissions toward its voluntary target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 17% below 2005 emissions by 2020 to the extent that it may reduce its emissions by 9.5 %  by 2020. (WRI, 2012)  US ghg emissions reductions have been achieved in the United States due largely significant fuel switching in the electricity sector from coal to natural gas, an economic slowdown that began in 2008, and some federal and US state regulatory programs designed to reduce ghg emissions. Yet because the US projected reductions of 9.5% below 2005 in 2020 is equal to a 2% increase above 1990 levels in 2020 at a moment in history when many scientists believe that a reductions of 25 to 4o% below 1990 levels by 2020 are necessary to prevent dangerous climate change, the US projected reductions fall extraordinarily short of any reasonable US fair share of tolerable global emissions.

Because of these inadequate commitments from the United States, ECO, an NGO publication that reports on developments at UNFCCC negotiations, wrote the following letter to President Obama that we hereby reprint.

President Obama: We Hope for Change

In his victory speech after being re-elected to a second term, President Obama swelled the hopes once again of people around the world who care about climate change when he said, “We want our children to live in an America that is not burdened by debt, that is not weakened by inequality, that is not threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” Those hopes continued to swell when in a press conference a few days later, he responded to a question from the media on climate by saying that he planned to start “a conversation across the country…” to see “how we can shape an agenda that garners bipartisan support and helps move this agenda forward…and…be an international leader” on climate change. President Obama appears to understand that climate change is a legacy issue that was not adequately addressed during his first term in office.

The question therefore has to be, what next? In his second term, will President Obama deliver the bold action needed to reduce the threat of climate change to the US and the world, by shifting the US economy towards a zero carbon future, and making the issue a centerpiece of US foreign policy? In the aftermath of superstorm Sandy, and the drought, wildfires and other extreme weather events that have afflicted the US over the last year, it is clearly time for President Obama to press the reset button on climate policy, both nationally and internationally.

First, the world needs to hear from the President and his negotiating team here in Doha that they remain fully committed to keeping the increase in global temperature far below 2 degrees, that it is not only still possible but essential to do so, and that the USA is going to provide leadership in this collective effort.

The administration should then make clear how it will meet its current 17 percent reduction target. While US emissions are decreasing slightly – both as a result of the administration’s policies on renewable energy and vehicle fuel economy standards and because of sharply lower natural gas prices that have reduced coal use for electricity generation – it is unlikely that without additional regulation or legislation that the US will meet its 2020 target. The delegation should also clarify what the Obama Administration will do to put the US on track to the near-elimination of emissions by mid-century called for by the scientific community.

Finally, delegations need to hear that the US remains committed to meeting its fair share of the Copenhagen pledge of mobilizing $100 billion in climate finance per year by 2020, as well as which innovative finance options the administration is prepared to support to get there.

These four steps would go a long way to reset US climate diplomacy. They would show that instead of dragging the world down to the level of what is (not) possible in the USA, President Obama and his team are going to pull the US up to what the science and the world demands to avoid catastrophic climate change.

One last point: every coach knows that when you find your team down by several goals at half-time, a change in your game plan may not be enough; it may also be time to make some substitutions to the players on the field.


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law


Qatar: Linking Increasing the Ambitiousness Of National Emissions Reductions Commitments To Equitable Responsibilities

The international climate negotiations to take place in Qatar next week will seek to make progress on increasing the ambitiousness of national commitments on greenhouse gas emissions reductions. In Durban last year the international community created the Ad Hoc Working Groups on the Durban Platform (ADP). ADP has been charged with   developing a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force, under the Convention applicable to all Parties. The ADP is to complete its work as early as possible but no later than 2015 in order to adopt this protocol, legal instrument, or agreed outcome with legal force at COP-21 so it will come into effect and be implemented from 2020.

One of the goals of the ADP is to obtain increased ambition on national emissions reductions commitments. Greatly increasing the ambition of nations to commit to greenhouse gas reductions is believed to be vital because the scientific community is convinced that the world is running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change.

Significantly increasing national commitments to reduce emissions is widely understood to be urgent because nations have not made commitments to reduce their emissions to levels that will prevent 2°C of additional warming, a temperature limit that has been adopted by all nations under the UNFCCC as the maximum amount of warming that should be tolerated to prevent dangerous climate change. Even though many scientists believe that the warming limit should be 1.5 °C or even 1.0°C to prevent dangerous climate change, the emissions reductions commitments that have been made under the UNFCCC fall far short of achieving the 2°C warming limit. For this reason, parties to the UNFCCC in Durban last year agreed that advanced ambition on greenhouse gas emissions reductions is urgently needed and should be the goal of future international climate change negotiations.

Many observers of the climate change negotiations also believe the nations will not make more ambitious commitments to reduce their domestic greenhouse gas emissions commitments until nations take the requirement under the UNFCCC to reduce their emissions based upon “equity” seriously. This is so because developing countries are not likely to greatly increase their emissions reductions commitments as long as developed countries refuse to base their emissions reductions commitments on what justice requires of them. For this reason there is a growing call for, not only increasing the ambitiousness of emissions reduction commitments, but also for nations to take “equity” seriously.

All nations have agreed under the UNFCCC to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions based upon “equity” although almost all nations have yet to respond to climate change on the basis of “equity. More specifically nations agreed under the UNFCCC that:

”The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof.”

(UNFCCC, 1992: Art 3)

II. The Bonn Meeting on “Equity”

Because there is a growing recognition of the need to take “equity” seriously, the UNFCCC Secretariat held a meeting in Bonn in May of this year to encourage nations to exchange views on the meaning of “equity”.

As we shall see very divergent approaches to the meaning of equity were articulated at the Bonn meeting. A full report on the meeting was prepared by the UNFCCC secretariat (UNFCCC 2012). Here is a sampling of some proposed approaches to understanding “equity” made by presenters at the Bonn meeting:

  •  The UNFCCC executive secretary Christiana Figueres invited parties to consider three aspects of equity in relation to the global emissions reductions: (1) country circumstances, (2) historical and future contributions to global omissions, and (3) capacity to address climate change.
  •  Bangladesh repeated the claim frequently made by developing nations that developed countries have the primary responsibility to develop a low carbon economy and society.
  •  China explained that the developed countries have “over-occupied” most of the existing atmospheric space through their cumulative emissions, transferring responsibility onto developing countries and creating a new form of inequality.
  •  Singapore stressed the need to define equity in light of different national circumstances such as the fact that Singapore is disadvantaged in terms of the availability of alternative energy sources.
  •  Brazil stressed historical responsibility as an important component in defining equity.
  •  The EU identified the goal of a future regime as enabling all parties to achieve sustainable development, poverty eradication, and climate resilient growth. The EU argued that equity needed to be interpreted in a way that reflects nations’ common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.
  •  The United States argued that equity should not be defined through a formulaic approach. The United States underlined the common understanding that equity is about fairness and a fair distribution of efforts, and that no one can be asked to sacrifice their development. The United States argued that the focus of equity should be on development and opportunities for growth, and not on the division of the carbon space. The United States argued that a qualitative concept, such as equity, should not be forced to fit into one formula.

(UNFCCC 2012)

And so the Bonn meeting made little progress in developing an international agreement on the meaning of “equity.”  However, several parties recommended that a decision on this matter should be taken at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Doha, Qatar. Other parties recommended that a follow-up workshop under the UNFCCC might be another option to continue the dialogue on this matter. will be reporting on this from Qatar. We will also recommend that specific questions should be asked of nations about their positions on equity and we are organizing a program on this on December 5th in Qatar.


UNFCCC (1992) United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change,

UNFCCC (2012) Report on The Workshop on Equitable Access to Sustainable Development,


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence,

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law