Does Copenhagen die today?

Most people left Copenhagen thinking the next big crunch date would be the last day in January, when 49 or so countries are due to lodge their commitments for reducing emissions with the UNFCCC (they fill in one of two appendices to the Copenhagen Accord – “quantified economy-wide emissions targets for 2020” for developed countries; “nationally appropriate mitigation actions” for developing ones – China included).

As Barack Obama explained, these commitments “will not be legally binding, but what [they] will do is allow for each country to show to the world what they’re doing… and we”ll know who is meeting and who’s not meeting the mutual obligations that have been set forth.”

In other words, this is ‘pledge and review’ – the non-binding, bottom up approach that the United States favoured in the run up to Kyoto, before it surprised everyone by announcing that it was prepared to accept a legally binding protocol at the Geneva climate conference in 1996.

The US then agreed at Kyoto to a 7% cut in its emissions by 2012 on a 1990 benchmark, but failed to ratify the treaty. It is now offering a 17% cut on 2005 levels by 2020, on a non-binding basis – which would take its emissions more or less back to where they were in 1990. (The EU is promising a 20-30% cut on 1990 levels by 2020.)

But the US has a credibility problem. Not only did it use the Kyoto years to pump out as much CO2 as it could, the Senate is yet to pass domestic legislation and, with healthcare stalled, and financial regulation next in the queue of ‘big bills’ – there’s long been a big question mark on whether it will ever will.

The Copenhagen Accord, and especially China’s willingness to accept some kind of international monitoring of its emissions reductions, was supposed to make it easier for the President to push the bill over the line, but that depends heavily on (a) his political credibility; (b) whether he can keep together a very shaky Democrat alliance on the bill, perhaps bolstered by the odd Republican prepared to commit political suicide.

Which brings us to today – when the Democrats face, according to Nate Silver, a 75% chance of losing Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in a special election. If the hapless Martha Coakley does lose (I actually think she may scrape it, but she’s clearly now the outsider), it’s going to make a climate bill seem a very long way away indeed.

One thing is sure. Scott Brown won’t be voting for emissions reductions any time soon. He’s solidly in the mainstream of Republican thinking on the issue. Asked recently if global warming was a fraud, he answered:

It’s interesting. I think the globe is always heating and cooling. It’s a natural way of ebb and flow. The thing that concerns me lately is some of the information I’ve heard about potential tampering with some of the information.

I just want to make sure if in fact . . . the earth is heating up, that we have accurate information, and it’s unbiased by scientists with no agenda. Once that’s done, then I think we can really move forward with a good plan.

And if the Democrats lose the seat and their super-majority in the Senate, will the US still feel able to pledge a 17% emissions cut in their submission on Copenhagen on Jan 31st? And, if they do, will anyone believe they have the political will to meet the commitment? The answers to those questions are – probably yes; almost certainly not.

Alex and I have wondered for some time whether the climate risks becoming a zombie process (shuffling and groaning, but never quite dying) – but perhaps we’re wrong. Maybe Copenhagen is going to be dead sooner than we thought. It certainly doesn’t look good if the Democrats lose a Senate seat that Kennedy held for them from 1962, just a year after Obama was born.