February 29th, 2012


Executive Director, Climate Policy Initiative

Former Senior Correspondent, Center for Investigative Reporting

Co-Founder, EcoSecurities


None of the experts onstage at Climate One on February 29 expect much to come from the United Nations climate change negotiations. That’s not to say they think action has stalled. Rather, the panel, which included an international environmental lawyer, a clean energy investor, and a muckraking journalist, said to expect countries to continue investing in clean energy and carbon-cutting projects within their borders.

Tom Heller, a longtime Stanford Law School professor who now serves as Executive Director of the Climate Policy Initiative, said he was not ready to dismiss the United Nations climate negotiations entirely. The outcome of last year’s climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa, the so-called “Durban Platform for Enhanced Action” [PDF]), he said, should succeed in upending the old regime – a firewall between rich and developing countries – for the new, a symmetrical system that imposes binding, though not equal, commitments on all emitters.

“I think the real trick in Durban was somehow, Janus like, moving away from the older style of negotiation on to the new style of international collaboration, without having any real diplomatic breakdown where people walked out,” said Heller. “None of this has any real impact on whether we’re solving the climate problem, but, diplomatically, it was a pretty cool move.”

Not to be lost in the debate over the efficacy of the Kyoto Protocol, said Marc Stuart, co-founder, EcoSecurities, and now a clean energy investor, is one important legacy: the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). The instrument, which enables rich countries to meet part of their emissions reduction obligations under Kyoto by purchasing credits from carbon-cutting projects in the developing world, led to what Stuart called a “cultural change” in the private sector.

“In 1997 [when the Kyoto Protocol was adopted], there was no idea of having a private sector who was going to seek out emissions mitigation throughout the entire global economy,” said Stuart. “You had this huge profile of people – ranging from people at GE, Siemens, and ABB to people in garages in India, Malaysia, and China – looking for ways to mitigate emissions. To think that would have just magically appeared is naïve.”

“It was a cultural change of tremendous import,” he said.

Mark Schapiro, Senior Correspondent, Center for Investigative Reporting, wondered if the CDM had achieved it assigned task. “This is the program the world decided upon to pursue to reduce emissions, so it’s a legitimate question to ask how effective it’s been at reducing emissions. Is the world obtaining the emissions reductions that they’re paying for? Basically the answer to that is, for the most part, no.”

Schapiro, the author of a much-discussed February 2010 Harper’s Magazine cover story, “Conning the Climate: Inside the Carbon-Trading Shell Game,” reminded the audience of the intent behind all of the U.N. deliberation. “Let’s not lose sense of what, ultimately, we’re talking about: applying a price to carbon. It means that the amount of money that we now spend on our fossil-fuel generated energy does not reflect anything close to the actual cost of that energy.”

None of the panelists believed much of substance would emerge from what is being called Rio +20, the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development, which convenes in June. Instead, expect to see ever-more action on the national level, said Stuart and Heller.

With the role of the CDM diminished, as countries exit Kyoto, and hopes for a global carbon market receding, “you have the emergence of things like feed-in tariffs in places like Thailand and Indonesia and Chile; you have depreciation allowances happening in various markets; you have an energy efficiency screen-based trading system happening in India ,” said Stuart.

“Would we have gotten to that point without this grand experiment [the CDM], which is probably in many ways a failure? I doubt it,” he said.

Tom Heller agreed. He cited large government investments made in Brazil, China, and Indonesia and elsewhere that “basically do the reverse of a cap-and-trade system.” That is, “instead of putting a cap that puts a price on stuff that produces carbon, they in effect give an incentive to do the stuff that doesn’t produce carbon.”


– Justin Gerdes
February 29, 2012
Photos by Rikki Ward
The Commonwealth Club of California