Obama’s failure on climate

In the Guardian, George Monbiot is incandescent about the failure of Obama and Romney to speak out about climate change.

The two candidates remain struck dumb. Speech fails them, action is abominable, they will not even raise their hands in self-defence. The world’s most pressing crisis, now breaking down the doors of the world’s most powerful nation, cannot be discussed.

Although Monbiot briefly refers to a lack of action, most of his article is dedicated to what the candidates have or haven’t said during the course of an interminable election campaign. Real world data, by contrast, does not get a look in.

As far back as the first Bush administration, successive presidents have been promising that they would restrain America’s carbon emissions, but have failed to deliver. Instead, emissions rose sharply during their term in office. Under Obama, they have finally hit a peak, are falling, and are expected to continue to do so.

By 2020, according to a projection published last month by Resources for the Future, US emissions will be 16% below a 2005 benchmark, in line with the Obama’s administration’s pledge under the Copenhagen Accord. (See Michael Levi for a useful discussion of the RFF study.)

As this graph shows, tighter regulation of greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act  is playing the greatest role, with new standards kicking in in 2011. This is followed by ‘secular trends’ (higher energy prices) and action at sub-national level, mostly in California.

There are many problems with US policy at the moment. For example, the extent to which the US exports the coal it no longer needs will have a huge bearing on the net climate impact of its increased use of gas for electricity generation, for example.

However, its emissions trajectory is shifting, and this is likely to continue, and could accelerate, if Obama wins a second term today. It will also be fascinating to see how an American president deals with climate internationally if, for the first time, he walks into a negotiation with a story to tell of progress at home.

A Guide to the BASIC Coalition – climate after Copenhagen

One of the most significant developments at Copenhagen was the emergence of the BASIC coalition – Brazil, South Africa, India and China – which negotiated the final details of the Copenhagen Accord with the United States.

My understanding is that BASIC was formed at China’s instigation. China agreed a Memorandum of Understanding with India in October 2009, committing the two countries to working closely together at Copenhagen. It then invited Brazil and South Africa to join the party, at a meeting in Beijing a week before Copenhagen started. Sudan was also invited to represent the G77.

According to Jairam Ramesh, India’s environment minister, the four countries decided that they’d walk out of Copenhagen together if necessary:

We will not exit in isolation. We will co-ordinate our exit if any of our non-negotiable terms is violated. Our entry and exit will be collective.

During Copenhagen, China worked extremely closely with India, with the two delegations meeting up to six times a day. It also engaged intensively with the other members of BASIC. In the final meeting with the Americans, China agreed to accept a limited international monitoring of its targets (India claims to have pushed China on this point).

The decision was also taken to drop language, setting a deadline for turning the Copenhagen Accord into a legally binding agreement. South Africa and Brazil both appear to have been unhappy with this decision.

Since Copenhagen, the BASIC countries have met once and have agreed to continue to get together on a regular basis. They want the Copenhagen Accord to set the stage for a ‘twin track’ agreement – with tough and binding targets for developed countries through Kyoto #2 and voluntary commitments for themselves under a new agreement.

No-one really knows how the US would fit into this picture. It is also increasingly clear that they and the US left Copenhagen with quite different impressions of what will happen next. The US believes that large emerging economies now have “very explicit activities and obligations”. I don’t think they believe they are committed to anything significant, beyond what they agreed at Bali or put on the table on a voluntary basis before Copenhagen started. Continue reading

Did Copenhagen die yesterday?

Yesterday, I speculated about prospects for the Copenhagen Accord if Democrats lost their super-majority in the Senate. Well, voters in Massachusetts handed them a thumping – so what next?

In Politico, Martin Kady II looks on the bright side. Yes, healthcare may now be dead (many Democrats seem to be abandoning it without a fight – though I suppose that could change over the next 24 hours) – but Obama can still get other key parts of his agenda through Congress, Kady believes.

Unfortunately, on climate, what looks bright to Kady is likely to look exceptionally gloomy to those outside America’s borders.

A cap-and-trade bill has a shot in the Senate – as long as the cap-and- trade part is removed. If Democrats dump that toxic measure and pursue a more modest climate and energy bill, they’ve actually got a shot at getting something done – and getting a few Republican votes to push them past 60.

Voinovich and Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) are working on a smaller-scale proposal that would limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. And moderate Democrats are pushing Senate leadership to drop the cap-and- trade provision in favor of an energy-only bill, which could include renewable fuels standard tax incentives for alternative energy…

“It is my assessment that we likely will not do a climate change bill this year, but we will do energy,” Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said Tuesday. “I think it is more likely for us to turn to something that is bipartisan and will address the country’s energy interest and begin to address specific policies on climate change.”

The Voinovich-Lugar bill will do little to cap, let alone reduce, emissions. Voinovich is certainly no fan of action on climate change. He has been holding out for a new analysis of cap and trade from EPA – believing the agency is holding back information on the true costs.

His main priority is reduce America’s dependency on the Middle East, wanting the US to become the least dependent on imported oil of any country in the world. He’s thinks the US should go after “every drop” of its oil shale and should also invest heavily in using coal as a substitute for oil.

On climate itself, he thinks the 17% emissions reduction by 2020 on 2005 levels, which President Obama promised at Copenhagen, is much too ambitious. He sees little point in the US reducing its emissions if China and India don’t do the same.

If Voinovich is now the best hope for getting bipartisan support for US domestic legislation, then I think Copenhagen’s prospects are grim indeed. Expect it be starring in its own Monty Python sketch sometime around the time of the US mid-terms.

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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.