INSIGHT: The Copenhagen chicken and the China egg

24 September 2009 15:52  [Source: ICIS news]

By Joe Kamalick

US and China in quandry over which should move firstWASHINGTON (ICIS news)--It looks increasingly likely that the UN Climate Change Conference at Copenhagen in December will end with an empty declaration if it doesn’t collapse entirely, according to both backers and opponents.

The Copenhagen climate summit is supposed to craft a new and detailed global treaty to combat global warming, an expanded agreement that would extend the Kyoto climate treaty of 1997, which is due to expire in 2012.

But the Copenhagen meeting may well stumble on the same obstacle that kept the Kyoto treaty from ever becoming a meaningful and enforceable agreement - the inability of the US and China to agree on proportional participation.

With the 7-18 December Copenhagen conference just ten weeks away, there is little indication that the US and China are any closer to a workable deal than they were in ’97.

The US government signed the Kyoto agreement, championed by then-President Bill Clinton. But the treaty was never ratified by the US Senate - and therefore never became legally binding US policy - because the Clinton administration never submitted the Kyoto deal to the Senate for approval.

With good reason.

Even before the Kyoto treaty was signed, the Senate voted 95-0 to reject any UN climate change treaty being negotiated then “or thereafter” that would limit greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by the US and other developed nations “unless the protocol or other agreement also mandates new specific scheduled commitments to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions for developing countries parties within the same compliance period”.

That resolution was approved without opposition by 54 Republican and 41 Democrat senators, with one Republican and four Democrats not voting.

Of course that was the 105th Congress, and the Senate make-up in the current 111th Congress is different - but not that different.

Even though Democrats nearly hold a 60-vote super-majority in the Senate (with the seat vacated by the late Senator Ted Kennedy likely to be filled by appointment soon), there is little prospect that the Senate will approve any sort of climate change legislation of its own - much less any treaty that comes out of Copenhagen without China’s committed participation.

Because of the chamber’s parliamentary rules, it takes 60 votes to get Senate approval of any controversial and complex legislation. A climate change bill would certainly qualify.

But to approve a treaty - such as the broadly opposed Kyoto agreement - two-thirds of the Senate must vote approval, meaning 67 votes.

“The Democrats don’t have the votes,” said Senator James Inhofe (Republican-Oklahoma), the Senate’s leading global warming skeptic.

“There are too many newly-elected Democrats in the Senate who don’t want to go home and tell voters that they just voted for the largest tax increase in American history,” Inhofe said, referring to Republican estimates that a cap-and-trade emissions mandate would cost US consumers about $2,000bn (€1,360bn) in higher energy costs.

Few if any senators would be willing to commit the US to that kind of cost burden as part of a new climate change treaty if that agreement again exempted developing countries such as China, India and Brazil from emissions restrictions.

Without China’s participation, even a draconian US emissions mandate would have little or no impact on the world’s climate.  Even Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson, a dedicated climate treaty advocate, conceded in recent Senate testimony that “US action alone will not impact CO2 levels”.

At the special UN climate meeting held in New York City this week - called as a sort of pep rally by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon in hopes of building momentum for the Copenhagen meeting - Chinese President Hu Jing Tao again resisted calls for commitments by Beijing to greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

Instead, he merely promised that China would work to reduce its carbon intensity, the amount of carbon emissions per unit of production. But China could cut its carbon intensity by 20% and still increase its emissions by 20% because of population and production growth.

In addition, Hu again called on developed nations to provide funds and royalty-free green technology to developing nations if the latter are to realize any substantive GHG cuts.

According to Representative Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, the ranking Republican on the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, what likely would be hundreds of billions of dollars in additional funding aid and royalty-free technology would constitute “an unacceptable price tag for the beleaguered American taxpayer”.

“In light of this, will the Senate ratify an agreement that lets China, India, Brazil and other major developing economies off the hook indefinitely?” Sensenbrenner asked. “I have my doubts.”

There are at least 13 Senate Democrats that have voiced strong reservations about a climate change bill, much less a new binding global treaty. Ten are from states where coal is a major resource or that are dependent on coal-fired electric power. Three others have additional reservations about climate change legislation.

“So what does all of this portend?” Sensenbrenner asked. “My more than 12 years experience with international climate change negotiations tells me that we are heading towards a repeat of Kyoto - namely an environmentally ineffective agreement that cannot be ratified by the US Senate.”

Essentially, it is one of those chicken-and-the-egg quandaries. Which comes first? 

Climate change treaty advocates say the US must enact meaningful emissions reductions legislation before Copenhagen in order to convince China and other developing nations to make parallel and binding commitments.

Opponents contend that China must make binding emissions reductions commitments before the US can be expected to burden its industry and consumers with harsh energy penalties inherent in any emissions caps and cuts mandate.

Although President Barack Obama spoke forcefully at the UN climate change meeting about the need for concrete action at Copenhagen, he also emphasised that China and other developing nations have to do their part.

That does not appear likely, given China’s own statements.

As a consequence, Obama already is beginning to distance himself from the fast-approaching Copenhagen meeting.

Earlier, it was thought that President Obama would put in a personal appearance at the Copenhagen summit, to lend his direct emphasis to the effort. But he is unlikely to do that if it appears that the summit will in any event fail.

Asked this week if Obama will be going to Copenhagen to fight for a new climate treaty, White House deputy national security advisor Mike Froman seemed to discourage that possibility.

“I think it is probably premature to talk about the president’s schedule for December,” Froman said. “And a lot depends on what happens between now and then in the negotiations.”

($1 = €0.68)

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By: Joe Kamalick
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