Political Climate Change | September 8, 2008 Issue - Vol. 86 Issue 36 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 86 Issue 36 | pp. 29-31
Issue Date: September 8, 2008

Political Climate Change

New U.S. president will be in tight spot as world negotiates new treaty
Department: Government & Policy | Collection: Climate Change
News Channels: Environmental SCENE

The new president will also have to wheel and deal with Congress if he wants the U.S. to join any new climate treaty.

THE 2008 presidential campaign season is getting into full swing, with a heavy focus on domestic issues. Yet regardless of which candidate comes out on top in November's election, the new president will face a daunting uphill sprint on international climate-change negotiations.

Looming on the horizon is a long-planned United Nations meeting in December 2009, when countries are hoping to complete a new treaty to control greenhouse gas emissions. This new pact would replace the Kyoto protocol, a 1997 agreement that called for industrialized nations to reduce their emissions between 2008 and 2012. The U.S. never adopted the Kyoto protocol, but it may become a partner in a new climate deal. The U.S. is under enormous international pressure to take a leadership role in the negotiations. Details of the new treaty will have important implications for both the economic and environmental future of the U.S. and the world.

Whether Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) or Democratic Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) captures the White House, it will take the new president some time to get key Administration officials in place, starting with members of his Cabinet. This process, which involves Senate confirmations, takes months. Then his Administration will have to craft a detailed climate negotiation strategy and start engaging with other countries in a series of UN-sponsored talks that will culminate in the December 2009 meeting, which is to take place in Copenhagen.

As president, Obama or McCain will likely take a markedly different approach to international climate talks than outgoing President George W. Bush. Both candidates have endorsed the use of a cap-and-trade system to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Bush, in contrast, has steadfastly resisted limits for U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and has pushed developing countries—especially China and India—to control theirs, points out Jennifer Morgan, director of the Climate & Energy Security program for E3G, a London-based environmental group that promotes sustainable development.

In 2007, Bush launched a series of gatherings called the Major Economies Meetings on Energy Security & Climate Change. Separate from the UN climate talks, these meetings brought together the Group of Eight nations—Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the U.K., and the U.S.—along with the European Union and eight other countries that have significant greenhouse gas emissions. Those nations are Australia, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa, and South Korea. The goal of the gatherings was for participants to agree on an international strategy on climate change that would improve energy security and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, beginning sometime after 2012.

WHEN CREATED, Bush's major economies group generated distrust because it pressed large developing countries to reduce greenhouse gas releases without coincident U.S. commitments on emissions, Morgan says. "It was quite a poisoned process," she adds.

Eventually, the major economies meetings moved international debate on climate change forward, says Philip E. Clapp, deputy managing director of the Pew Environment Group, an arm of Pew Charitable Trusts, which promotes U.S. adoption of mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions. The gatherings allowed negotiators to explore, in a smaller forum than the UN talks, various ideas about emissions reductions, Clapp says. Avril Doyle, a member of the EU Parliament from the United Ireland Party, says that the major economies confabs will prove positive if they motivate more countries to join a global emissions cap-and-trade program created under a new UN climate treaty.

The major economies meetings culminated in July during the G-8 summit in Japan. The participants agreed to vague goals, including promoting the success of the Copenhagen meeting and endorsing "ambitious, realistic, and achievable" goals for cutting global greenhouse gas emissions.

The leaders of the G-8 countries also endorsed a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. However, the pledge lacks a baseline year, such as 1990 or 2008, for those cuts. The earlier the year, the steeper would be the required emission reductions and presumably the greater the cost (C&EN, July 14, page 6).

In parallel with the G-8 summit, leaders of Brazil, China, India, Mexico, and South Africa held their own conference, also in Japan. They called for industrialized nations to take the lead in addressing climate change and to reduce greenhouse gas releases by 25 to 40% by 2020 and 80 to 95% by 2050, based on 1990 levels.

Bringing this group of major developing countries together with the G-8 nations and getting a U.S. negotiating team in place on a short timetable aren't the only big challenges McCain or Obama must contend with on the climate-change front. The new president will also have to wheel and deal with Congress if he wants the U.S. to join any new climate treaty.

A new climate pact would have to cross two legislative hurdles in Congress. The Senate would have to give consent for the U.S. to become an official treaty partner in a new climate pact—a process that requires a two-thirds majority, or 67 votes. In addition, both the Senate and the House of Representatives would need to pass legislation, by a simple majority, to control U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases. This means the new president will have to work closely with Congress, especially the Senate, during the talks leading up to the Copenhagen meeting.

The new chief executive is likely to find some fierce opposition in Congress to a treaty that calls for reduction of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, says David W. Kreutzer, a senior policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. Lawmakers representing areas with energy-intensive industries such as manufacturing or that depend on coal tend to oppose mandatory greenhouse gas emissions, fearing major job losses among their constituencies, he says.

THE FRACTURES in Congress over climate became particularly apparent earlier this year. The Senate failed to muster enough support to bring climate-change legislation to the floor for a vote (C&EN, June 9, page 9). Nonetheless, committees in the Senate and House appear ready to debate the impacts and costs of controlling greenhouse gas emissions. And U.S. lawmakers are facing pressure from growing numbers of groups lobbying on climate change (C&EN, July 14, page 30).

The EU, which has pressed hard for a new global climate-change deal, is keenly aware of the key role Congress plays in shaping the international negotiating positions of the U.S. A delegation of EU legislators visited Washington in April to meet with their counterparts in the U.S. Congress and urge them to develop an emission-trading program, one that could eventually be linked with the EU's emission-trading scheme. The EU lawmakers did not focus their attention on the Bush Administration.

"We cannot expect much movement on climate change from the current White House," the EU delegation explained in a statement. Instead, the EU legislators are looking ahead to 2009. "We expect the next U.S. Administration to make climate change a priority and to begin drafting the relevant domestic legislation from day one," the delegation stated.

The European lawmakers invited senators and House members to visit the EU "and see what we're doing," says Karl-Heinz Florenz, a German Christian Democrat who is the European Parliament's rapporteur on the EU's emission-trading scheme. "We have to talk more," he says about lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic.

If the U.S. chooses not to take a major role in crafting and accepting binding limits on greenhouse gases, Florenz suggests the EU, on its own, will form a coalition with China and perhaps India to lead negotiations on a new climate-change treaty.

The Heritage Foundation's Kreutzer predicts the upcoming round of international climate negotiations will include much debate over an issue that he says has gotten little attention in past talks: the economic costs of reducing greenhouse gas releases. The new president will have to determine whether cutting these releases in the short term will be matched by the benefits of doing so, he says. Adaptation to the effects of climate change and careful timing of emission reductions may be more cost-effective in the long run, Kreutzer argues.

In any case, the two main contenders for the Oval Office have fairly similar views on international climate policy. Obama says he would actively engage in the UN climate discussions and would create a global energy forum, made up of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases, to focus on global energy and environmental issues. McCain supports strong U.S. participation in the UN negotiations on a new climate pact and wants emission controls for China and India, saying the U.S. needs to develop and export low-carbon technologies to developing nations.

So whichever candidate gets elected, it appears that future U.S. policy on climate change will diverge from the Bush Administration's stance. But how far this will go by December 2009 will depend on how quickly McCain or Obama can get his Administration in place, flesh out the details of his climate policy, engage Congress, and make inroads with other nations.

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