A cell phone rings. It belongs to Sergio B. Serra, Brazil’s ambassador for climate change, a longtime diplomat with a professorial manner. Actually, it doesn’t ring. It croaks. Sounds like something in the rainforest.
“It’s a frog,” Serra says, laughing, during a meeting today with a group of visiting reporters. “Very politically correct.”
Serra is a green. But he’s also blue.
Green? Brazil will commit to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, even as a developing country, in the next round of climate negotiations. Brazil gets nearly half of its energy from renewable sources, mostly hydropower and sugar cane ethanol. Brazil is even winning the battle against deforestation in the Amazon.
Blue? Well, even though Serra is spending virtually all his time promoting a global climate treaty—this weekend, for instance, Brazil is hosting a meeting of the so-called BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) to talk about climate change—he has modest expectations for COP16 in December in Cancun, the next big UN meeting on climate. Nor does he have much hope that a global climate treaty with binding caps on carbon emissions, the kind of deal that will likely be needed to deal with the climate crisis, can be negotiated in the immediate future.
No wonder he’s blue.
The biggest obstacle to a global deal is the U.S. Congress, which has yet to pass a law capping climate pollution in the U.S. and, even if it does, may resist a UN-administered treat. Other counties won’t go forward without a commitment from the U.S., the world’s No. 2 emitter of greenhouse gases, behind China.
The U.S. is pivotal, Serra said: “Just as pivotal as the U.S. thinks China is pivotal.”
Serra, who speaks near-perfect English, spent about 90 minutes chatting with the visiting reporters, and provided an insider’s view of the thorny politics of climate action. He was in the room, representing Brazil, when President Obama personally tried to broker a deal last December in Copenhagen, and he moves easily between the western powers and the poor countries of the global south, no surprise since Brazil is somewhere in between.
Climate is the biggest and most complex collective action problem ever. No action by an individual, a company or even a country to curb its greenhouse gas emissions will solve the climate crisis until most everyone agrees to do so. Each country’s circumstances and history differ, leading to arguments about who is obligated to do what. And the climate crisis creates risks for politicians because the costs of action are short-term and significant, while the benefits are long-term and uncertain.
Unlike some enviros in the U.S., Serra acknowledges the cost issue in a straightforward way. “There’s a price for being responsible in terms of climate,” he says. “Especially because much of the evolution towards a green economy depends on technology.” Developing countries can’t be expected to foot the bill, he said, because, one, they’re poor and two, they didn’t make the climate mess; the rich countries did.
This is the concept of historical responsibility, and it’s not that complicated. The situation we are in regarding global warming is due mostly to the burning of fossil fuels since the beginning of the industrial revolution. So the countries whose industries which industrialized later are much less responsible for global warming.
China is now the world’s No. 1 emitter but “they have much less of a historical responsibility than the U.S.,” he said.
Post-Copenhagen disappointment, if not dismay, led some critics to suggest that the UN process itself, which seeks to reach a global consensus, is to blame. Why not let the world’s 20 biggest countries work on a deal, I asked Serra.
“We will get nowhere if we don’t try to make the negotations as transparent and inclusive as possible,” he replied. He said “consensus is not exactly unanimity” because some countries can express their consensus with their silence. Besides, he said, poor countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America “that are more vulnerable, that are most affected” are not part of the 20 major economies, and they need to help shape a global deal.
Serra expressed two hopes for Cancun. First, that an agreement could emerge around REDD (Reducing Emissions From Deforestation and Forest Degradation) that would provide financing to developing countries, like Brazil, that protect vital forests. Second, that rich countries could work out details of a $30-billion financing commitment they made at Cancun to help poor countries adapt to climate change and develop new technologies. The financing deal is ridiculously complicated, with disagreements about who should administer the fund, how spending should be monitored and where the money would come from.
As if that weren’t enough, the global economic crisis has left rich countries feeling less rich, although my travels in Brazil, where you can see people living in conditions that would not be tolerated in the U.S., made clear that even in these tough times, most Americans are very, very well off by global standards.
When our discussion ended, I checked my email and learned that Senate Democrats have given up on a climate bill this summer.
Barring a stunning performance by Democrats in this fall’s midterm elections, that means no climate legislation until 2013, if then.
Now I’m blue.
Disclosure: My six-day trip to Brazil was organized by Apex-Brasil, a government-backed agency that promotes trade and investment, and sponsored by Petrobras, Electrobras and Banco do Brasil.