The world waits for Obama
Both inside and outside the United States, expectations are high that Barack Obama will change the course of American climate policy. But there are several reasons why it will take some time before a new course becomes noticeable. The Copenhagen climate conference at the end of 2009 will likely be too soon for the United States to take a leadership position.
Issues other than climate are likely to dominate Obama’s agenda during his early days in office. His election campaign focused on the crisis in the U.S. economy, energy security, health care reform, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is natural to assume that these issues will continue to have top priority after the new president is inaugurated in January.
Too Little Time for Copenhagen
Time is running short for the new administration. The deadline to submit proposals to the Copenhagen conference is in June 2009, and it takes time to appoint a new negotiation delegation and establish its mandate. Obama has to coordinate his climate policy with Congress to avoid a repeat of what happened in Kyoto, where the Clinton administration signed an agreement in the absence of Congressional backing. Previous experience shows that the United States is most amenable to international cooperation when it is in line with established U.S. policy.
To pass a federal climate bill, the President must secure a Congressional majority, and obtaining that majority will be a long and arduous struggle. The November election left the Democrats in a stronger position in both houses, but both parties represent states with heavy coal- and oil-based industries; representatives from these states are likely to remain skeptical to any proposed climate bill. Obama will have to listen to these interests and build a center-based majority by introducing legislative elements that cap costs. The challenges of ratifying any new international climate treaty are perhaps even more formidable because this requires a two-thirds majority (67 votes) in the Senate.
Finally, the President must convince public opinion that investments in energy efficiency, alternative energy sources and improved energy infrastructure will benefit both the economy (in the form of jobs) and the environment (in the form of emissions reductions). Support from the general public will help ease the passage of a climate bill in Congress, and strengthen his mandate in international climate negotiations.
The conclusion is that the United States is unlikely to pass a federal climate bill before the climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009, but Obama may attend the conference with a limited mandate in agreement with Congress. This mandate may be sufficient for the United States to commit to further participation in the negotiation process.
Outlook for Negotiations
The United States is not only currently the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases per capita, but it also represents one of the world’s greatest capacities for technological innovation, as well as being an economic and political superpower. For these reasons, the participation of the United States in international climate cooperation is crucial. Major developing countries such as China and India have strong ethical arguments for refusing to take on binding greenhouse gas targets as long as the United States also continues to reject binding commitments. They can point to the fact that the United States is largely to blame for both historical and current greenhouse gas emissions, that its emissions per capita is seven times higher than the average for developing countries, and that it is many times richer. Developing countries have a legitimate right to improve their inhabitants’ welfare, but are also expected to be harder hit by climate change than the richer countries. On the other hand, strong economic growth in the developing countries will result in an explosion in emissions: in a few decades, they can be expected to emit well over half the global greenhouse gases. If we want to limit the increase in temperature to, say, 2.5°C, the most developed of these countries will have to stabilize their emissions soon, while the industrialized countries must reduce their emissions by 70-80 percent within a few decades.
Options to Discuss in Copenhagen
One option that may facilitate a new international climate agreement is to adopt a limited climate agreement – for example, an extension of the Kyoto Protocol – in Copenhagen next fall. This limited agreement would be valid only, for example, until 2015. This will give countries a new negotiation period in 2010-2011, during which time the United States may be able to participate fully. Provided that the EU is also willing to concede a little, a more comprehensive and long-term climate agreement for the period after 2015 could be in place before the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012.
Another option, which may possibly be combined with the first, is to aim for a framework agreement in Copenhagen. Such a framework agreement must be supplemented with the necessary details in the period 2010-2011 so that a new agreement can replace the Kyoto Protocol from 2013.
It is natural to assume that the United States will be most amenable to the first option, simply because this will provide more time for it to secure a federal climate bill and greater leeway to influence the formulation of the new agreement in line with its own climate legislation. Future negotiations might also be easier if a new climate treaty would allow individual countries greater flexibility in adapting the implementation of the agreement to their own particular situation, for example by letting each country determine how much it will invest in emissions cuts relative to investing in technological innovation or adaptation measures in developing countries.
Last updated: 08.12.2008
Status of Negotiations
The Kyoto Protocol commits 37 industrialized countries to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions in the period 2008-2012 by an average of five percent compared to 1990 levels. The Protocol covers only 28 percent of global emissions. Developing countries do not have binding targets. The United States withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol in 2001.
Negotiations are now underway to replace the Kyoto Protocol. The aim is to adopt a new agreement at the climate conference in Copenhagen in December 2009. In addition to this "Kyoto Track", there is also a "Convention Track" aimed at formulating measures in both industrialized and developing countries that can meet the main goal of the UNFCCC: “to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” The 2007 climate conference in Bali adopted an action plan focusing on four themes: reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, adaptation to climate change, development of climate-friendly technology, and funding of measures in developing countries. Other key themes are strategies at the sector level, increased cost effectiveness through cuts in greenhouse gases (including the use of market mechanisms), and reduced deforestation (so-called REDD).
There are great differences between the European Union, China, India and the United States, and it is thus uncertain what kind of agreement will be negotiated in December 2009. A prerequisite for an effective climate agreement is to have the United States participate more actively.