Copenhagen – a load of hot air?


A new deal to reduce carbon emissions is ultimately destined to fail once more, due to the intransigence of the world’s largest emitter, writes Shane Murphy

It was supposed to be so different. In a sharp divergence from his much-criticised predecessor, President Obama vowed to compel the United States into binding commitments to reduce greenhouse emissions in his landmark bid for election. Along with many other promises this new approach heralded a refreshing change in position from the World’s largest emitter. However in what has effectively become the hallmark of the Obama presidency, his best intentions are once again floundering on the rocky partisan politics of the US Senate.

World leaders will gather in Copenhagen in December in an effort to hammer out new targets for the reduction of carbon emissions. The result would be a treaty that would replace the outdated Kyoto Protocol. The architects of Kyoto could never have envisioned that it would still be the modus operandi of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) some twelve years after its first draft.

The convergence of global leaders, climate scientists and the world’s media in Copenhagen in just over a month was supposed to be a watershed moment in the global effort to curtail climate emissions. Increasingly, though, it looks like the planet will once again be consigned to diplomatic horse-trading and token gestures that have come to epitomise these initiatives.

There are two main problems for Obama in committing to sizeable reductions in the emissions of carbon. The first will be getting a climate bill passed before Congress in time for the next round of talks in Copenhagen. Were such a bill passed it would invariably strengthen his position on the issue domestically and allow Washington to commit to specific reduction targets.

The current climate bill however remains buried under the weight of healthcare and economic proposals that consume much of the Senate’s time. The effect of this is that it seems increasingly unlikely that any climate bill will appear before Congress in time for the talks in Copenhagen.

The latest round of UNFCCC talks held in Bangkok a number of weeks ago revealed the extent of US intransigence on the issue. In essence the US Senate has made clear it will not sign up to any Kyoto-like agreement giving specific targets for countries and punish them financially if they do not meet their respective mandatory target. This makes it extremely difficult for Obama to support a Kyoto-like agreement for Copenhagen, which has drawn consternation from many developing countries.

The United States never joined the initial effort to reduce carbon emissions in 1997 under the remit of the Kyoto Protocol. Its ambivalence toward this foundation agreement arose in part due to a lack of mandatory targets for developing industrial behemoths such as China and India.

The US is the biggest hurdle in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Along with China it accounts for roughly 40 per cent of carbon emissions worldwide. At the recent UN convention on climate change in New York in September, there was much hyperbole and rhetoric but little commitment. Obama outlined no definitive targets, wary of pledging the US to something that would invariably fail in the Senate.

The second arduous task needed to reach agreement in Copenhagen is financing. America and other developed countries will almost invariably have to pick up the bill for any significant cut in carbon emissions. The World Bank estimates that developing countries are seeking up to $100 billion a year to convert to cleaner technology to aide them in carbon reductions yet still keep them on a firm economic footing.

The question of who picks up this tab will be among the most contentious issues under discussion at Copenhagen. Invariably it will fall to the European Union and the United States to take the lion’s share of this. However it will be a particularly difficult prospect for the Obama administration to convince sceptical Senators, who are already dubious about the merits of such reductions.

An ever more cataclysmic scenario has unfolded in recent weeks. Deep rifts have emerged within the EU as to how to pay for to any new climate bill. Newer accession states such as Poland and Romania feel slighted that they should be ask to stump up money for the pollution of countries they consider wealthier, such as Brazil.

There are also deep divisions among the wealthier members of the EU. Germany has led a cohort of nations unprepared to divulge how much they are willing to spend per year on pollution abatement technologies for developing countries.

The net effect of such bickering has resulted in the EU Commission stating that it would only commit to its “fair share” of the burden. Had the EU offered definitive numbers on the issue it would have placed enormous pressure on the other naysayers primarily the US and Japan to do likewise.

Unfortunately it seems that a new Protocol is ultimately destined to fail even before talks have begun in just over a month’s time. Inevitably there will be much haggling and posturing but little to show for what has amounted to 12 years of lobbying and initiatives by the UNFCCC. Unless the debate moves to Washington it will remain mired in black smoke.