Monday, November 23, 2009

The US and the Copenhagen Summit

With the Copenhagen climate change summit just fourteen days away, the United States is moving towards making an offer to commit to reduce emissions. Britain’s Observer newspaper reports that their US climate change envoy, Todd Stern, is said to be floating the idea that the US would offer to cut emissions by between 14-20% by 2020, compared with 2005 levels – a level much lower than that offered by the European Union.

The challenge for the United States is that the Senate has delayed dealing with the climate change legislation proposed by the House of Representatives. The Senate has delayed consideration of the climate change legislation until May or June of 2010. Concerns over the legislation, especially the provisions for a cap on carbon and the development of a carbon market and the impact this will have on the economy, affect both republicans and democrats, both parties are now seeking a major rethink of the approach. Also of concern is the idea that the US should lead on the statement of emissions targets so that others can follow – a strategy that puts the US economy at risk, according to several Senators. Any proposal made at Copenhagen is subject to subsequent legislation. It is a high risk strategy.

Climate lobby groups, like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, are growingly frustrated with the US position in general and President Obama in particular. Pointing to increasingly alarmist studies that suggest that the planet is warming faster than previously predicted and that the Antarctic and Arctic ice is melting, they see Copenhagen as a “last chance” to save the planet. A failure to reach a binding agreement, even if there is an agreement to reach such a binding treaty against a specific time-table, is seen by such groups as a repudiation of years of work leading to the Copenhagen summit.

They are also concerned that the US administration is willing to settle for a watered down arrangements. Not only does the administration appear to be willing to settle for moving the goalpost for emission reducing from 1990 to 2005, thus minimizing the impact of any new ”carbon budget”, but they are also willing to accept a level of CO2 in the atmosphere much higher than scientists recommend. The US administration is using a CO2 figure of 450 parts per million as the atmospheric limit it is working towards (we are already at 390), while the scientific community is strongly urging governments to work towards a reduction to 350 parts per million.

The Obama administration is worried that a tough treaty at Copenhagen would suffer the same fate as the Kyoto treaty did in the Senate – it will not pass. The administration point to the changing position of Senator John McCain who fought an election with a commitment to climate change legislation, which is now backing away from. His shift of attitude reflects the political reality the administration have to deal with. The politics of Arizona, where cap and trade could have a significant negative impact on jobs are thought to be behind McCain’s lack of support for climate change legislation. Arizona already has a high rate of unemployment and he appears to have calculated that the climate change bill now before the Senate would make things worse.

McCain also observes that Obama is giving little weight to the climate change agenda, focusing on it when abroad, but not when at home. Health care and the economy are seen as more critical issues. Gone is the idea that five million new jobs can be created by focusing on green technology. Indeed, rather than position the legislation in terms of “stopping climate change”, Obama now casts it in terms of clean energy and energy security – a major shift in his position from that he took just a year ago.

Whatever the US does will make or break the Copenhagen summit. The US position appears confused, unfocused and marginal. This could well end up being a description of the outcome of these global talks unless the US moves quickly to clarify its position.

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