Politics, Money, And Climate | November 9, 2009 Issue - Vol. 87 Issue 45 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 87 Issue 45 | pp. 37-39
Issue Date: November 9, 2009

Politics, Money, And Climate

News Analysis: Copenhagen meeting is unlikely to produce a new climate-change treaty
Department: Government & Policy | Collection: Climate Change
News Channels: Environmental SCENE
Keywords: climate change, global climate treaty
As talks on a new climate-change treaty bogged down, the Maldives’ President Mohamed Nasheed held a symbolic underwater cabinet meeting.
Credit: Newscom
As talks on a new climate-change treaty bogged down, the Maldives’ President Mohamed Nasheed held a symbolic underwater cabinet meeting.
Credit: Newscom

The prediction is bleak. Chances are almost certain that a new climate-change treaty will not emerge as had been hoped from a United Nations meeting set to take place this December.

Countries have been negotiating for nearly two years on a new global accord to curb greenhouse gas emissions, notably carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels. The goal of the talks has been twofold: to limit the amount of global warming from the build-up of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere and to help poor countries adapt to predicted effects of climate change, such as sea-level rise and drought. The discussions are supposed to wrap up at a Dec. 7–18 meeting in Copenhagen.

But the talks are stuck in low gear. Two main issues are slowing progress. One is that Obama Administration negotiators are not offering exact numbers for how much the U.S. would agree to cut its emissions and by when. The other is money—specifically, how much of it the industrialized world will provide to developing countries so they can curb emissions and adapt to changes in climate.

Action by the U.S. Senate might help move the negotiations forward on the former issue. But the odds aren’t in favor of this work wrapping up before the Copenhagen meeting.

Eileen Claussen, a long-time observer of global climate talks, says the Obama Administration is waiting for the Senate to finish its work on climate legislation before offering specific numbers in the global talks. Obama negotiators won’t commit to a treaty-specified target for reducing releases of greenhouse gases unless they have some assurance that the U.S. can and will make good on it, says Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. Knowing with some certainty whether the U.S. will follow through on international commitments depends on what Congress decides on emissions-curbing legislation now under debate.

In June, the House of Representatives passed a bill, H.R. 2454, that would cut domestic carbon dioxide releases by 17% of 2005 levels by 2020 and by 83% of 2005 levels by 2050 (C&EN, July 6, page 8). The Senate, however, didn’t begin work on its version, S. 1733, until late October.

Credit: Pew Center on Global Climate Change
Credit: Pew Center on Global Climate Change

Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) are pushing S. 1733, their recently introduced bill that is as yet incomplete (C&EN, Oct. 19, page 30). The measure faces political hurdles. For instance, some conservative Democrats in the Senate want less ambitious emissions cuts than in the House bill. And a number of Senate Republicans, led by climate-change denier Sen. James M. Inhofe (Okla.), have refused to even attend a key committee markup of a climate-change bill (see page 13). Whether the Senate can finish its work on the bill this year is doubtful.

Passage of a new climate-change law by the House and Senate is one of two legislative actions that are essential for the U.S. to implement a new climate treaty. The second is a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate consenting to ratification, a move that would make the U.S. an official treaty partner.

Credit: Cheryl Hogue/C&EN
Credit: Cheryl Hogue/C&EN

Gone are the foreign policy practices of years past when U.S. negotiators brought home a completed agreement and then sought Senate ratification and legislation conforming U.S. law to its terms. That strategy worked successfully with the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer. The Senate ratified the pact and, with the House, amended the Clean Air Act in 1990 to require the phaseout of chemicals that thin the Earth’s protective layer of ozone in the stratosphere.

The Clinton Administration unsuccessfully tried this strategy for the Kyoto protocol. That 1997 accord calls for industrialized nations to cut their greenhouse gas emissions between 2008 and 2012. The U.S. signed the Kyoto protocol but never became a partner in that pact. In 1997, the Senate passed a resolution 95-0 not to accept the Kyoto deal because it did not require developing countries, notably China, to cut their emissions.

The Obama Administration’s climate negotiators are avoiding a repeat of the Kyoto protocol scenario by waiting for the Senate to act on S. 1733. But with the debate on health care reform taking precedence, many observers think it will not be possible for the Senate to vote on the bill before early to mid-2010.

In the global climate negotiations, the lack of a clear position on emissions cuts by the U.S., historically the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, has slowed progress.

A catch-22 seems to be at work: The Senate is reluctant to act until it has assurances that China, which recently overtook the U.S. as the world’s largest emitter, will curb its greenhouse gas releases. But China appears to be holding back on doing so until the U.S. offers specifics.

“The world is looking at China, and China is looking at the U.S.,” says Jo Leinen, chairman of the European Parliament’s Environment, Public Health & Food Safety Committee. Leinen was in Washington, D.C., in late October with other members of the Parliament to meet with members of Congress on climate-change issues.

China’s President Hu Jintao pledged in September that his country will ratchet down its emissions of CO2 per unit of gross domestic product—a measure called CO2 intensity. But Hu said only that this cut in CO2 intensity would be “by a notable margin” when compared with 2005 levels. Most observers believe the Chinese are waiting to give specifics until after U.S. negotiators lay out the amount and timing of emissions cuts.

Frank V. Maisano, who represents utilities, wind developers, and refiners, thinks that the pace of the negotiations could pick up if negotiators adopted China’s approach of lowering CO2 or energy intensity rather than emissions. “It’s a better measure,” Maisano, an energy specialist at the Washington, D.C., law firm Bracewell & Giuliani, says of intensity targets.

The lack of U.S. emissions-related numbers isn’t the only thing knotting up the Copenhagen talks. The money issue also looms large. Pledges from industrialized countries have been slow in coming and lack firm numbers.

The talks on financial assistance are further complicated by the emergence of two factions among the developing countries. One consists of more prosperous economies like China, India, and Brazil, which are mainly seeking transfer of green energy technology from industrialized nations. The other consists of poorer countries, such as most African nations and island states, which have different priorities for financial aid.

The latter group is largely not responsible for the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, yet many of these nations are expected to suffer some of the severest consequences of climate change. They primarily want help in adapting to climate change, but they lack the political clout of more the prosperous developing nations.

The world’s poorer countries are doing what they can to keep from being sidelined in the climate talks. African nations are threatening to walk out of the Copenhagen talks if they don’t get adequate financial assistance, a move that would pull the plug on the meeting. And the president of the Maldives, a nation of low-lying islands in the Indian Ocean, last month held a cabinet meeting underwater. The act was symbolic of the inundation the Maldives could suffer if unchecked emissions contribute to rising seas due to global warming.

So with money and emissions proposals still lacking at this point, the Copenhagen gathering likely will not produce a final deal.

That will not necessarily represent a breakdown in climate talks, however. Instead, Claussen says, the Copenhagen meeting could produce a political endorsement that the world should restrict emissions to a level that will limit worldwide average annual warming to a maximum of 2 °C. This kind of political agreement is like a letter of intent—a firm and clear declaration of a goal yet nonobligatory, Claussen explains. In contrast, a treaty is like a contract, which is legally binding on those who sign it.

If countries forge a political agreement in Copenhagen, they will probably resume climate talks in 2010 to complete a new treaty, Leinen and Claussen say. Maisano points out that there is a precedent for such a move. In 2000, climate talks in The Hague collapsed, but they were restarted and concluded successfully in 2001 with an agreement governing implementation of the Kyoto protocol.

If the Senate passes climate legislation and developing countries get assurances of aid for technology transfer and adaptation, negotiations next year may indeed lead to a completed global agreement that the U.S. will accept and implement.

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