Will U.S. go empty-handed to world climate talks?

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 29, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Without a new law requiring cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, the U.S. could end up going empty-handed to the international climate talks in December.

Many nations are watching to see whether the Senate will make progress on a climate and energy bill that would spell out the U.S. national emissions-reduction plan. Without an offer of such cuts from the largest source of emissions that are already in the atmosphere, there won't be a global deal at the talks in Copenhagen, Denmark.

At the same time, other countries have started to put forward their own plans to cut emissions. If that momentum builds, it could put pressure on the Senate to pass the bill, possibly early in 2010, and open the way for another negotiating round on a global treaty next year.

"If there is no commitment, of course we will have no deal in Copenhagen," Jo Leinen of Germany, the head of the European Parliament's environment committee, said Thursday in Washington.

"An ambitious reduction target is the key," he said. The other part, he added, is an agreement by the U.S. to join other rich countries in helping to pay for the world's poorest countries — not China, but less industrialized nations — to develop clean energy and adapt to inevitable climate change.

Leinen said that if all six Senate committees with a say in the bill finished their work before the Dec. 7-18 talks, that might be enough to give international negotiators a sense of what the U.S. was willing to do. In that case, it could be possible to continue the talks early next year to fill in the details of what countries will do, he said.

The legislation before the Senate, like a bill that passed the House of Representatives in June, would cap emissions and provide funding for climate assistance. It would set a limit on emissions that ratchets down each year until it reaches an 83 percent reduction from 2005 levels by 2050.

It also would require power plants and other large sources of emissions to buy pollution permits. Most of the money would go to subsidize consumers and industries for increased fuel costs, and to encourage the development of clean energy. Some also would go to help poor nations adapt to climate change.

U.S. negotiator Todd Stern, speaking to members of Congress in September, urged the Senate to act, saying, "Nothing the United States can do is more important for the international negotiation process than passing robust, comprehensive clean-energy legislation as soon as possible."

However, it appears unlikely that the full Senate will vote on the measure this year because lawmakers want to finish overhauling health care first.

The Bush administration opposed mandatory cuts in emissions. Joseph Romm, who was an acting assistant energy secretary in the Clinton administration, said the Obama administration couldn't turn everything around in less than a year.

"Given the last eight years, anybody thinking there was going to be a deal in Copenhagen wasn't paying attention," Romm said.

There has been progress, however, he said.

"We've not only seen China stepping up but Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico. So I think that is all positive," Romm said.

If all the other largest sources of emissions agree that they'll no longer allow unlimited emissions, the Senate either must pass a bill or it will be blocking a historic international agreement, he said.

Some countries have made plans for significant emissions reductions. Others, notably China, seem to be waiting to see what the U.S. will do.

Stern, the U.S. negotiator, said Wednesday in Shanghai that China and the U.S. were trying to make as much progress as possible before the Copenhagen negotiations. Obama will visit China on Nov. 15-18.

The world previously has agreed that developed countries must make specific emissions reductions and developing nations, including China, must slow the growth of their emissions over roughly the next 10 years and then make deeper cuts.

China has closed small and inefficient coal-fired plants, launched huge development of renewable energy and nuclear power, planted trees and started to improve its energy efficiency, although the International Energy Agency projected in 2006 that it would surpass the U.S. as the globe's number one source of greenhouse gas emissions this year.

President Barack Obama's principal environmental adviser, Nancy Sutley, contends that the administration has made steady progress on environmental initiatives.

The administration set new fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles and put aside $80 billion in stimulus money for clean energy. The Department of Energy has set new energy-efficiency standards on appliances. The Department of Interior, which has jurisdiction over one-fifth of the nation's land, took action to develop renewable energy on public lands and offshore. The Environmental Protection Agency has been moving ahead with plans to regulate large sources of emissions if Congress fails to act.

"Pretty much from Day One the president has made clean energy and dealing with climate change a priority for the administration," Sutley said.

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