Last week the Sixty-Fourth Session of the United Nations General Assembly convened in New York. On Tuesday September 22nd UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is convening a Summit on Climate Change. According to the UN “[t]he objective of the Summit is to create a broader political vision of the urgency for action, and to mobilize the political will needed to reach an agreed outcome at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen this December.” Leaders of the major countries of the world also will meet in Pittsburgh this week for the latest G-20 conference where climate issues will be part of the discussions.
With the December Copenhagen conference rapidly approaching, concerns are being voiced that it may already be too late to reach any truly comprehensive global agreement at Copenhagen on post-Kyoto GHG emissions controls. As climate legislation continues to be subject to delays in the Senate, many people also are becoming pessimistic about the prospects for climate legislation being adopted in Congress this year. I had lunch on Friday in Washington with one of the key participants in the Congressional debate over climate legislation who predicted that if things do not change substantially no legislation will be adopted this year. The protracted debate over health care reform certainly has sapped some of the energy that otherwise would have been devoted to passing climate legislation. Negotiations on both domestic legislation and a new international agreement have been difficult, but this is not unexpected given the difficulty of mobilizing collective action to address problems of such vast temporal and geographic scope as climate change.
Despite growing gloom and doom, one optimistic note is that the U.S. already is making substantial progress in reducing its GHG emissions. In an article in today’s Washington Post, Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute who normally is not a big optimist on environmental matters, notes that the U.S. already has reduced its carbon emissions by 9 percent over the last two years and that it is poised to make even further cuts due to the rapid growth of alternative energy sources and improvements in U.S. energy efficiency. Lester R. Brown, On Energy We’re Finally Walking the Walk, Washington Post, Sept. 20, 2009 (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/09/18/AR2009091801143.html). While much of this reduction is due to the economic downturn, it may persist if trends toward improving energy efficiency and investments in renewable energy sources are sustained. Of course, that will depend in part on the future price of oil and whether regulations are adopted that effectively put a price on carbon emissions. Earlier this month Credit Suisse Securities noted that wholesale demand for electricity in the U.S. declined a whopping 15.3 percent in the second quarter of 2009 compared to 2008. Credit Suisse is predicting that 2009 overall will feature a 2.8 percent decline in electricity demand in the U.S., the largest drop since World War II.
This week the British oil trading firm Trafigura abruptly offered to settle a $160 million class action brought in London on behalf of 31,000 residents of the Ivory Coast allegedly harmed by the company’s dumping of hundreds of tons of toxic waste in Abidjan in August 2006. The company previously had been forced to clean up the waste at a cost of $200 million, but thousands of residents of Abidjan claimed that exposure to the waste had caused severe health problems and even some deaths. The case against Trafigura had been scheduled to go to trial in Britain on October 6. Trafigura had blamed the waste dumping on an “independent contractor” and had aggressively threatened to bring libel actions against media outlets who published reports favorable to the claimants. Last Wednesday the Guardian newspaper revealed emails allegedly showing efforts by Trafigura to cover up its involvement in the waste dumping. Trafigura then announced that it had reached a nearly $50 million settlement with attorneys for the plaintiffs. While attorneys for the plaintiffs expressed approval of the settlement, Greenpeace argued that the company still should be prosecuted for manslaughter for deaths caused by the waste dumping.
On Friday afternoon I had drinks with Tashi Rabgey, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Tibetan Studies. Tashi, a former Rhodes Scholar who is the daughter of a Tibetan monk, is interested in partnering with educational institutions in China to develop environmental education programs in Tibet. I promised to discuss her ideas with Chinese environmental law professors during my trip to China at the end of next month. This week I received confirmation that the paper I am co-authoring with Zhang Jingjing, China country director for the Public Interest Law Initiative, has been accepted for presentation at the IUCN Academy of Environmental Law’s annual colloquium in Wuhan the first week in November.