Old deadlock, new stories

Pity the climate journalists trudging from one disappointing summit to the next. But there are plenty of scoops out there, writes Lu Zhenhua. We just need to look in the right place.

For climate hacks, the annual United Nations-led global warming negotiations have always been a bit of a shindig. But, writing this article in the week leading up to the 2011 meeting in Durban, I could think of very few Chinese journalists packing their bags for South Africa.

It’s easy to feel nostalgic for the heady days of the 2009 summit in Copenhagen. Back then, it wasn’t just the mainstream, national media sending correspondents – even many of China’s local newspapers dispatched reporters to Denmark.

We all know what happened next.

Climate change may be the only area where difficulties in negotiations actively discourage the media from reporting. During the marathon talks over the European debt crisis, for example, or the regular summits of G20 nations, no matter how little progress is actually made, financial and economic journalists can at least find solace in publishing photographs of assembled world leaders.

But for climate-change negotiations, the major politicians no longer come out to play. Host countries can’t hope to replicate the pomp of Copenhagen for many years to come. The clues were there at last year’s summit in Mexico: no heads of major governments were in attendance.

Of course, climate change negotiations are essentially ministerial level events: the attention paid to the Copenhagen conference was due to the successful bid by the Danish government to turn it into a summit for heads of state. For journalists, this was a gift. Secret talks between government heads, diplomatic offensives, the Danish text – these were as good as aphrodisiacs for the reporting world.

But since then, global climate-change negotiations have offered no major stories and climate reporters long ago became jaded. Even if the European Union decides to raise mid-term emissions reduction targets from 20% to 30%, if neither the United States nor China follows suit, so what? And, besides, under current circumstances that’s hardly likely to happen.

And what are the chances of a major move from China? Last year, a senior figure in the carbon markets sector told me, after paying a visit to the relevant authorities, that he had been told off the record that China had withstood international pressure to make binding commitments on emissions cuts and would continue to do so without difficulty until 2013, even 2014.

Back in Copenhagen, I ran into one of China’s negotiators on the conference sidelines just as the country was coming under heavy pressure from the European Union and, more particularly, the United States. He appeared relaxed, and said China still had many cards left to play.

Climate negotiations are a political game, globally and domestically. Nowhere is this truer than in the United States, where a struggle over the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) right to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions continues to play out in Congress. Those in favour of removing those rights even seem to have the upper hand. And domestic politics ultimately determines diplomatic policy.

Amid this political deadlock, climate reporting remains in the doldrums. Even some of China’s major media outlets have cut the number and length of reports they run on climate change.

But who says there’s no news? There are articles being published, it’s just they focus on domestic pollution issues; or business topics arising out of climate-change negotiations, such as carbon markets, new and clean energy technologies and local government low-carbon projects.

Japan provides an interesting example: when the Japanese government made it clear in Cancún that it wanted to abandon the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, criticism in the global media was immediate and scathing. But at the same time, Japan is making voluntary emission cuts at home, and working hard to build carbon markets, which it is linking up with those in Korea. We should report objectively on Japan’s climate-change policy.

We can see similar areas of progress in other regions. With California taking the lead, carbon trading in the United States is shifting from regional markets such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and WCI, to regionally-linked markets. Canada, a member of the Umbrella Group and a country that has come in for much international criticism due, among other things, to its decision to abandon efforts to cut emissions under the Kyoto Protocol in 2006, has said that if the United States passes federal law on carbon markets, it will follow suit. This could lead to a wider North American market. There has also been movement in China, with the announcement of seven provincial-level carbon market trials.

And, with Europe’s legally mandated 20% emissions reduction target, the EU Emissions Trading Scheme is certain to remain in place until at least 2020. George Waldburg-Wolfegg, director of emissions markets at trading platform ICE Futures Europe told me in London that he is very confident the EU-ETS will be in place until 2050. He said fluctuations in international carbon prices are not connected with climate change negotiations, because of the guarantee provided by European legislation – over half of participants in the EU-ETS are using it to achieve compliance.

While it is hardly news that international negotiations are deadlocked, there is still a response to climate change worth writing about as countries make voluntary emission cuts and find commercial opportunities in that process. As well as the negotiations themselves, climate reporters can cover business matters, carbon markets and carbon economies. Yes, the liberal media can call on countries to show greater political will in international climate negotiations, but they should not completely pillory them. Accuracy, objectivity and balance must always come first.

Long journeys are made up of small steps. There is bound to be some news from the Durban meeting and from next year’s UN-led climate meetings too. Beyond that, we will see how things develop.

Perhaps that development will include, as John Ashton, UK special representative for climate change at the UK foreign ministry, hopes, agreement of a single, legally binding deal in or around 2015, to be ratified and signed by the parties in or around 2020. This was the vision set out by Ashton when I visited his department in November. While he said such an agreement would also respect the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” (the idea that rich countries bear a greater burden than poor countries in the fight against climate change) and while it is not certain that every nation would simultaneously undertake legally binding commitments, it is clear that developing countries would be included in such an agreement.

But what then for India and China? Compared with the United Kingdom, which long ago completed its industrial revolution, these countries still need to develop and produce emissions. Differences remain – and, where there are differences, there is drama.

As for Durban, even if expectations are low, I believe there will still be stories to tell.

Lu Zhenhua is a reporter at 21st Century Business Herald.

Homepage image by UNclimatechange