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After two weeks of climate negotiations in Doha, bleary-eyed ministers, negotiators, and advocates are headed back home to the various regions around the world. Few, if any, are leaving entirely satisfied.

The pace of progress on climate change is still too slow, and the political will for greater ambition remains elusive. That said, these talks did achieve the basic goal of extending the Kyoto Protocol and moving countries onto a single negotiating track toward a new climate agreement by 2015. This leaves the door open for more progress ahead.

This year's talks took place against the backdrop of two disturbing trends. On the one hand, there are multiple signs that climate change is here, and its impacts are already being felt around the world. On the other hand, the world remains tied to the consumption of fossil fuels that drive more and more greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. With each passing day that we don't shift directions, we are increasingly locking ourselves into a more unstable climate future.

The real question is: Can the international talks have a real impact on climate change?

This week, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released a new proposal detailing how they would like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from existing power plants. Their analysis predicts that their proposal would reduce power sector GHG emissions 26 percent below 2005 levels in 2020, or 17 percent below 2011 levels.

Standards for existing plants are essential if the United States is to make meaningful strides toward a low-carbon economy. NRDC’s proposal provides a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion about how best to design these standards.

U.S. Emissions Are on an Unsustainable Path

Even though the United States has made progress on reducing emissions – most notably through the Obama administration’s new standards for passenger vehicles – we need more action if the country is to prevent climate change’s worst impacts. While U.S. energy emissions have fallen nearly 9 percent below 2005 levels, these trends are not expected to continue without ambitious new climate and energy policies. This is the clear takeaway from both the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook 2012 and a recent analysis by Dallas Burtraw and Matthew Woerman at Resources for the Future.

In the UNFCCC international climate negotiations, “ambition” refers to countries’ collective will to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions enough to keep global average temperature increase below 2°C. While most countries have made international pledges to limit GHG emissions, these pledges are not “ambitious” enough to add up to the GHG cuts needed to meet the 2°C temperature goal. That’s why many groups are calling on parties in Doha to step up their commitments. Equally important, though, is ensuring that countries are effective in implementing domestic policies that meet – or exceed – the international commitments they have made already.

What Makes for an Effective Domestic Climate Policy?

The “implementation deficit” – a difference between the expected and actual amount of emissions reductions of an enacted policy—stems from a lack of complete implementation of a climate policy. This kind of “deficit” is well documented in a number of policy sectors, with significant implications for the countries’ abilities to meet GHG-reduction targets. Conversely, when climate policies are effectively implemented, they demonstrate that mitigation actions can work, in turn encouraging other countries to adopt similar policies and actions.

The effectiveness of any policy depends on several key factors, including:

Doha, Qatar, may not the first place that you’d pick for a global conference—many people would be hard-pressed to find it on a map. Yet, it’s the location of this year’s global UN climate negotiations (COP 18).

It’s midway through the final week of the negotiations, yet there’s an eerie calm in the sprawling conference hall. The scene here is different than the past two years (in Durban and Cancun, respectively), both of which were filled with tension and even moments of drama. Certainly, no one expected a major breakthrough this year, but the lack of urgency here is disquieting.

The Climate Change Risks Are Increasingly Clear

What’s happening inside the conference center stands in stark contrast to what we’re witnessing outside. Just yesterday, an unusual and massive storm, Typhoon Bopha, swept across the Philippines, taking hundreds of lives and displacing thousands more. While typhoons are common in the Philippines, this storm is the most southern on record and arrived particularly late in the season. Meanwhile, people in the eastern United States and Caribbean are still recovering from Hurricane Sandy. And, in India, a new report warns that more droughts loom as monsoons will bring 70 percent less water in the years ahead.

As we move into the second week of the UN climate talks, the desert sand is swirling around the conference center in Doha, Qatar. Countries spent the first week tying up some loose ends on several issues, but there are still many details to be worked out before the sand settles and Parties head home. It’s hard to tell whether this meeting will turn into a full sandstorm or clear up.

The uncertainty here in Doha contrasts greatly with the increasingly clear (and grim) climate picture that we’re seeing around the world. Yet another report was just published finding that global carbon emissions are at an all-time high. This publication comes on the heels of the recent UN Environment Programme report showing that the gap in emissions is growing even wider. And, recent World Bank analysis reinforced the potential catastrophic impacts of moving beyond 2 degrees Celsius of global temperature rise. The warnings are clear, but it’s hard to tell if negotiators are ready to respond with the urgency that’s needed.

The Current State of COP 18

Indeed, it is fair to say that most of the critical issues on the table at COP 18 are not yet resolved. All the questions around the Kyoto Protocol and a second commitment period are still open. Issues surrounding finance – including medium-term pledge levels, the long-term work plan, and how to track countries’ climate finance commitments – have yet to be worked out. Roundtables on the Durban Platform resulted in a good exchange of views, but it’s still unclear whether there will be a firm work plan for 2013 or whether it will remain vague. The most vulnerable countries are understandably asking for more action now – even before a new 2020 agreement kicks in – but most countries haven’t put forth specific proposals.

While it’s not surprising that so many topics are stuck after the first week, the lack of action puts additional focus on the role of Ministers. Many are already in Doha, and they have their work cut out for them if they want to make progress in the remaining week of the conference.

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As negotiators in Doha move toward a new global climate agreement this week, politicians and planners in the United States are still busy absorbing the lessons of Hurricane Sandy.

With half of all Americans living near the ocean, Hurricane Sandy provides a wake-up call for state and municipal authorities in coastal areas nationwide. New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo is leading the way, pledging a new generation of storm-resistant infrastructure and forming three commissions to explore how the state can better prepare for climate change’s coming impacts.

Sandy wrought a 1,000-mile trail of damage in towns and cities along the East Coast shoreline. As climate change intensifies, more severe storms (and storm surges), rising seas, extreme heat, and other destructive impacts loom on the horizon. How can New York City; Newark, N.J.; and other cities hit by Sandy rebuild in ways that avoid a repeat of the devastation that deprived millions of the basic essentials of modern life? How can other coastal cities adapt to become more resilient to a warming climate?

Put simply, they need to “build back better,” a phrase first coined by President Clinton following the 2004 Asian tsunami. In practice, this means coupling short-term efforts to get communities back on their feet with longer-term urban development that adapts to expected climate change impacts.

As they seek to make our coastal cities and towns more climate resilient, urban leaders should adopt three key approaches that we believe will be critical to success:


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