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Friday, Nov. 27, 2009
COP15 hinges on Senate, China
Second in a series
OSAKA — With just weeks before key climate talks take place in Copenhagen, the success or failure of reaching any sort of binding agreement to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol appears to be coming down to dealing with the political concerns of the U.S. Senate and the Chinese leadership.
In the case of America, the Wednesday announcement by U.S. President Barack Obama that the U.S. will commit to a 17 percent reduction by 2020, based on 2005 levels, was immediately seen by many in Washington as a major step toward reaching a successful outcome at Copenhagen.
China meanwhile announced Thursday that although it does not feel obliged to declare specific targets at Copenhagen, it would cut its "intensity" of carbon dioxide emissions per unit of gross domestic product by 40 percent to 45 percent in 2020 compared with 2005 levels. It's not clear, however, how this cut will be quantified.
Premier Wen Jiabao will also attend the conference.
The U.S. target is considerably weaker than what EU nations and Japan have promised, while developing nations, particularly China, have long insisted developed nations set strong targets and, as recently as June, were demanding cuts of 40 percent.
The Dec. 7-18 Copenhagen conference has long been billed by environmental groups, scientists and politicians favoring tough emissions reductions as the last chance to reduce greenhouse gases to levels that will avoid irreversible change.
But although the scientific recommendations are clear, efforts to get the world to agree to them have stalled largely because of politics in the U.S. and China, the world's two largest emitters of greenhouse gases.
After the 2007 U.N. conference in Bali agreed to a new treaty in Copenhagen for the 2012-2020 period, nations announced different reduction goals.
Some have said cuts in line with what science says are needed.
For example, the European Union is committed to at least a 20 percent reduction by 2020 compared with 1990 levels, and will go up to 30 percent if other nations join in.
Japan, under Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, has said it will pursue a 25 percent reduction compared with 1990.
But other developed nations, facing tough political, and industry, opposition to such targets, use different base years from 1990 or have agreed to cuts far less than 25 percent.
The decisions made in Bali were based on a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the official body that advises the U.N. on climate change.
The IPCC made three recommendations that are at the center of the current stalemate.
The first was that, to prevent catastrophic climate change, developed nations need to cut emissions between 25 percent and 40 percent compared with 1990 levels by 2020, and by between 80 percent and 90 percent by 2050, also compared with 1990 levels.
The second was that developing nations could no longer continue business as usual.
And the third was that to stabilize greenhouse gases at safe levels throughout this century, worldwide emissions need to peak by 2015.
The Bali conference bound developed nations to setting specific reduction targets, but only required developing nations to take nationally appropriate mitigating actions in a measurable, reportable and verifiable manner.
"The wording of the Bali decision was a political compromise between developed countries, which demanded developing countries also set targets, and developing countries, which demanded developed countries take the lead as they were largely responsible for the current crisis," said environmentalist Yurika Ayukawa, who attended the Bali conference.
That was a problem for developed countries like the United States, which, together with China, account for about 40 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions.
The U.S. pointed to projections like those from the World Resources Institute, which estimates China's greenhouse gases will increase by 118 percent compared with current levels by 2025, making the country an even bigger polluter.
Regardless of Bali, U.S. opponents of strict targets said, a deal at Copenhagen that does not include specific reductions by China and other developing countries will be scientifically meaningless and politically unacceptable.
It is unclear what China's sudden announcement Thursday of apparent voluntary carbon dioxide cuts will mean for opponents of Obama's target.
In Japan, Hatoyama's decision to pursue a 25 percent cut surprised and angered many business leaders, especially in utilities and the manufacturing sector.
Like those in the U.S. opposed to strong targets, they warned of a heavy financial burden on consumers and loss of business to countries not obliged to pursue targets.
Hatoyama's announcement won accolades internationally, but he added a caveat, which was that it was hinged on the positive participation of major economies, specifically China, although what, exactly, that meant was left undefined.
In the U.S., a massive lobbying effort earlier this year by industries opposed to strict cuts, or strict cuts without a quid pro quo from China, created political difficulties for Obama and those who supported his green policies.
The nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity, a Washington based research center, counted over 2,300 congressional lobbyists this year, up from a little more than 500 in 2003, working to prevent legislation that calls for tough reduction targets scientists say are needed.
The House of Representatives passed climate change legislation in June that would mean a 4 percent to 7 percent reduction compared with 1990, but strong lobbying added to the fight during the summer over health care reform meant similar legislation in the Senate was delayed.
The Senate legislation is currently being debated, but is not expected to go to a vote before Copenhagen. It is unclear how the new U.S. commitment of a 17 percent reduction will affect the Senate debate, but it's now certain the bill will not be passed until next year.
Whatever legislation eventually clears the Senate, U.N. officials are aware, in a way they were not before the 1997 Kyoto Protocol summit, that any Copenhagen Protocol must be agreed to by two-thirds of the Senate, or 67 senators, before it can become law.
"One of the biggest lessons we learned from the U.S. failure to sign the Kyoto Protocol was how important it was to pay attention to the Senate," Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, told reporters in August.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon thus visited the U.S. earlier this month to meet with Senate leaders and press them to reach an agreement in Copenhagen.
Following recent statements by many governments and U.N. officials that a complete agreement will not be reached in Copenhagen and the best that can be hoped for is a political arrangement and another conference next year to sign the final treaty, world leaders will try one last time to bridge the differences between developed and developing countries. That task, U.N. negotiators hope, will be much easier now that the U.S. and China have put specific reduction targets on the table.
On Dec. 17 and 18, leaders from 65 nations, as of late November, will attend the last two days of the Copenhagen conference.
Many EU presidents and prime ministers, as well as Hatoyama, are among those expected to attend, and they will be joined by Wen. This is proof, China claims, of the great importance the country, now the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, attaches to climate change.
Obama does not plan to be with other world leaders on Dec. 17-18, but will stop off in Copenhagen on Dec. 9, en route to Oslo, where he is to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, to give a boost to the proceedings, and especially to U.S. negotiations with China.
Obama emphasized at his recent meeting in Beijing that both leaders would not allow the conference to fail. "We agreed to work toward a successful outcome in Copenhagen. Our aim is not a partial accord or a political declaration, but rather an accord that covers all of the issues in the negotiations, and one that has an immediate operational effect. Both countries will take significant mitigation actions," Obama said following his meeting with Hu in mid-November.
The U.N., meanwhile, is warning that the time to play politics is over.
"It is essential that we achieve an ambitious climate deal in Copenhagen. The moment is now. The involvement of heads of state is crucial," said Ban in an open letter released in mid-November.
U.N. climate chief de Boer said prior to Obama's announcement of a 17 percent cut: "I am not relying on the speed of Congress.
"The climate change legislation will be dealt with early next year. But having said that, I am confident that the president of the United States can come to Copenhagen with a target and a financial commitment," de Boer said.
Obama will now come to Copenhagen with the former, but the latter remains under discussion and progress at the confab is expected to be slow. In the end, providing funds to developing nations to reduce their emissions, prevent climate catastrophes, and adopt to an inevitable degree of climate change may turn out to be far more politically difficult than reaching an agreement on percentage cuts and base years.