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Will the US be ready in Copenhagen?

It’s well accepted that the upcoming climate talks in Poznan will not be the time or place for agreeing the architecture of a new deal on climate change. An idea that is less well received, but one that is gaining traction, is that the same could be true of the negotiations in Copenhagen a year from now.

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While the election of Barack Obama as US president brings renewed energy and hope to the UN process, President Bush will be holding court when environment ministers from some 192 nations meet next week in Poznan. And with Harlan Watson in place as the US chief climate negotiator, any serious shifts in the US position will be on hold until January. In addition, some are speculating that even the modest ambitions of the talks — to settle how to finance emissions cuts and aid adaptation in developing countries — are likely to be eclipsed by the world’s financial woes.

But of far graver concern are the growing reports that the US won’t be ready to sign a global deal on climate change in Copenhagen either, given the time needed to enact domestic climate legislation.

As far back as October, Elliot Diringer, Director of International Strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, wrote the following in an op-ed for the Transatlantic Climate Policy Group:

Any near-term action may come in the form of energy legislation that, while helping to reduce U.S. emissions, will not achieve the levels of reduction envisioned under a cap-and-trade scenario. Enactment of a comprehensive climate package, including cap-and-trade, is unlikely in 2009. It may come at the earliest in 2010.

The world can ill afford a replay of Kyoto, with Europe demanding more than can be delivered and the United States ultimately walking away. We need realism, not brinksmanship. Instead of a full and final deal in Copenhagen, we must aim for what is in fact feasible, and set expectations now so that it is received as a success. The risks and consequences of failure are otherwise far too great.

Just last week Senator Jeff Bingaman, chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, reflected this sentiment, saying that the financial crisis, the transition to a new administration and the complexity of setting up a federal cap-and-trade system would likely preclude action in 2009.


Now AP reports the following:

Though Obama has supported the kind of limits on emissions envisioned by international negotiators and spurned by President George W. Bush, it appears that Congress may not be ready to back him immediately.

The top European Union official in Washington, John Bruton, says there is growing concern that Congress could upend a global deal to succeed the Kyoto Protocol that they hope to sign at a meeting in Copenhagen at the end of 2009.

Speaking to Nature Reports Climate Change last week, UN climate chief Yvo de Boer rejected the notion that the US will first need to enact federal legislation:

I don’t think that there was a single country that signed up to a target in Kyoto that already had its domestic policy package in place. So I think it’s possible to do a political deal in Copenhagen without having all of the domestic measures in place. And since countries committed, and the US committed, actually, under President Bush at last year’s climate summit in Bali to a negotiating process that is supposed to be concluded in Copenhagen in 2009, I really think that it’s important that countries stick to that international commitment. Having said that, of course, it’s not going to be possible, feasible or necessary to agree every last detail in Copenhagen.

But some fear that without the US making visible efforts on the home front, emerging economies will be reluctant to sign up to a treaty in Copenhagen. Bruton to AP again:

I think that the idea that the United States would be able to persuade the Indians or the Chinese to make painful commitments in Copenhagen when it hasn’t made any commitments itself in the form of legislation is somewhat naive, to put it mildly.

Now that environmentalist Henry Waxman has replaced auto-industry enthusiast John Dingell as chair of the House of Representatives’ Energy and Commerce Committee, however, there are several like-minded Senators in Congress. And that just might be enough to see action on domestic emissions come far faster than anticipated.

Olive Heffernan

Image source: IStockphoto

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