Written by Katie Wilson

United Nations Climate talks came to a close Saturday with last minute agreements aimed at lowering emissions to avoid rising temperatures. The agreement centered on lowering emissions with a focus on decreasing the human impact on rising sea levels as well as the devastating storms and weather-related disasters that have become more frequent and severe in recent years. The talks are a timely discussion in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, just one example of the spike in severe weather in the last few years, and which environmentalists link to climate change.


Over 9,000 representatives from about 195 countries were gathered for this year’s two-week environmental conference in Warsaw, Poland [Photo credit: Reuters]

Historically, international climate talks have generally failed to garner widespread coverage or success. When the U.S. walked away from the Kyoto protocol over a decade ago, both national and international environmental groups criticized the world’s largest pollutant.

China’s strategy

China, the world’s second largest emitter at the time, played a key role in the formulation of the protocol and called on the U.S. to take an active part in it. This tension between the two superpowers was a matter of soft-power politics, with China playing the activist role, working to lower its extremely high emission levels. Since the Kyoto protocol was signed in 1997 without the U.S., China has jumped ahead and claimed the position of largest emitter with the U.S. as a close second.

China’s rapid economic growth is a clear culprit of the greater emissions, but this stands in stark contrast with the position the Chinese took on the Kyoto protocol. This goes to show that international leaders still do not take environmental issues seriously, despite the fact that they are increasingly becoming a huge problem on the world stage.

While China has failed to implement the necessary steps to lower its emissions, the U.S. has been taking small steps toward domestic regulation. President Obama released new EPA regulations aimed at the largest polluters in the country: coal burning plants. The regulations surrounding these plants will help the U.S. to lower its emissions and provide real results for future climate change discussions.

Moreover, President Obama has taken real steps to increase U.S. energy independence, including a strong push for fracking, the process whereby fluids are injected into the ground in order to fracture shale rocks to release natural gas. And although fracking is generally seen as an environmentalist nightmare, it would create an energy boom here on U.S. soil.

Ensuring financial commitments

These latest UN climate talks serve as a stepping stone toward the talks that will be held in Paris in 2015. The Paris 2015 negotiations are widely seen as the next Kyoto Protocol, with the environmental community hoping that some lasting agreement will be reached.

States walked away from the Warsaw talks with an agreement to prepare a proposal to lower greenhouse gases by the beginning of 2015. China and India, two developing states that contribute a great deal to the current levels of pollution, watered down the language of the agreement to avoid any legally binding commitment.


It is increasingly difficult to convince states to enter into binding agreements that will curb their emission levels [Photo credit: Fotopedia]

However, the financial aspect appears to be the major factor hindering a large scale agreement. Germany, Norway, the UK, and the U.S. pledged $208 million to be used by the World Bank’s Biocarbon fund, a 2004 initiative that seeks to help develop projects that will conserve carbon in forests and “agro-ecosystems.”

Unfortunately developing states, which are the ones contributing to the majority of emissions, are unwilling to make financial commitments.

President Obama’s recent policy shift toward a stronger stand on environmental issues could provide him with a more positive international reputation. He has the opportunity to make a strong commitment to both domestic and international reductions, which would gather more international support, something the U.S. could definitely use.

Moving toward protecting common goods such as the environment with an emphasis on international policies, would enable the U.S. to slow China’s economic boom through more stringent regulations, while also gaining important diplomatic clout.



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