COP-19 in Poland ended on Saturday with a heroic effort to paper over festering differences between developed and developing countries. China and India backed off their objections after conferences leaders agreed to change the description of the pledges each country must submit by early 2015 concerning its actions to combat climate change from “commitments” to “contributions.” Substantial progress was made on fleshing out the REDD program to reduce deforestation. Some progress was made toward developing a mechanism for providing funds to developing countries to adapt to climate change and for “loss and damage,” but developed countries adamantly refused to be held expressly liable for damages caused by climate change. Agreement was not reached on specifics concerning how developed countries would meet their 2009 Copenhagen commitment to provide $100 billion to a green climate fund for developing countries. The Polish government, host of the conference, announced the replacement of its environment minister during the event with a minister perceived as less sympathetic to the environment and it hosted a global coal industry forum in tandem with the climate conference.
At the behest of the government of the Netherlands, last week the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea ordered Russia to release the Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise that Russia seized in international waters off its northern coast in September when it arrested activists protesting Russian oil drilling in the Arctic. The Tribunal also ordered Russia to release the 30 activists and journalists who had been on the ship upon the posting of a 3.6 million Euro bond by the government of the Netherlands. Russia rejected the decision, claiming that despite the mandatory dispute resolution procedures in the Convention on the Law of the Sea, it would not respect decisions that it believes infringe on its sovereignty. When it ratified the Law of the Sea Convention in 1997, Russia submitted a reservation to anything that would infringe on its sovereignty. Citing this reservation, Russia boycotted the proceedings before the Law of the Sea Tribunal. China currently is boycotting a Tribunal arbitration initiated by the Philippines concerning China’s territorial claims to islands in the South China Sea. The Chinese government argues that the Tribunal has no jurisdiction to hear territorial claims. Last week a court in St. Petersburg granted bail to most of the imprisoned Greenpeace activists, who still face trial in February on hooliganism charges. Upon his release on bail, Peter Willcox, captain of the Arctic Sunrise, reported that the Russian commandos who arrested him stole and drank the alcohol that had been kept on board.
On November 20 Russian President Vladimir Putin told his National Security Council that Russia must put greater emphasis on protecting its environment or future generations will be “left with nothing.” Putin noted that Russia currently spends only 0.8% of its GDP on environmental protection, an amount far less than other developed countries. He observed that Russian industry is dominated by “dirty” technologies and that little legislation has been adopted to back up previous government rhetoric about the importance of environmental protection. Among the most urgent environmental priorities outlined by Putin were protection of Lake Baikal, Lake Onega, and Lake Ladoga.
With Northern China again engulfed in pollution so bad that highways and airports have been forced to close due to visibility problems, environmental protection remains a top priority of the Chinese government. An English translation of the document released this month by China’s Third Plenum of the Communist Party, called “Resolution Concerning Some Major Issues in Comprehensively Deepening Reform,” is available online at: http://www.china.org.cn/china/third_plenary_session/2013-11/16/content_30620736.htm It is considered a blueprint for how Xi Jinping plans to govern China and it has several provisions that address environmental concerns. The document states that the Chinese government “must effectively shifts its role by building itself into a service-type government that bases its functions on the law.” It concludes that the current system for assessing the performance of officials “overemphasizes GDP growth” and it pledges to impose a consumption tax on “energy and pollution intensive products” while changing “the current environmental-protection fee into an environmental tax.” The document states that more law enforcement resources will be devoted to environmental protection and that the judiciary will become more transparent, and its independence and fairness ensured. In a penultimate section entitled “Ecological Civilization” the document promises “the strictest possible rules to protect the ecological system” and it pledges to “push ahead with a trading system for pollutant discharge, carbon emissions and water rights.” It also promises to: “Establish a system in which all pollutants are monitored and regulated. Release timely environmental information and improve the reporting system to strengthen social supervision. Improve the pollutant-discharge licensing system and control the pollutants.” Finally, it declares that “[p]olluters who damage the environment must compensate for the damage and could receive criminal sanctions.”
On Wednesday November 20 the Washington Post printed a letter to the editor that I wrote concerning an oped the paper had published on November 16 about Chevron’s RICO lawsuit against plaintiffs and their lawyers who won a judgment against Chevron for oil pollution in Ecuador (http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/chevron-could-have-enjoyed-us-justice-sooner/2013/11/18/26187f8a-4f92-11e3-9ee6-2580086d8254_story.html). The oped, David B. Rifkin, Jr. & Andrew M. Grossman, “U.S. Justice Exposes an Ecuadoran Fraud,” was a somewhat premature victory lap for Chevron by claiming, prior to any decision in the case, that the company’s RICO lawsuit had exposed “a fraud, part of a 20-year scheme to extort money.” But, as my letter pointed out, 20 years ago the lawsuit originally had been filed by the plaintiffs in the very court the authors of the oped now lauded. It was dismissed initially only because the oil company insisted that the case should be heard in Ecuador, something the oped did not disclose. The oped also did not disclose that the authors’ law firm has Chevron as a client, something the Post corrected on November 23 with an unusually prominent “Clarification” on the editorial page.