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World held hostage to weak U.S. policy

Isabel Hilton

Climate policy is stymied by Barack Obama's weakness and Senate recalcitrance.

In Delhi last week, Professor Jeffrey Sachs, the guru of sustainable development from Columbia University, delivered a sobering message about U.S. climate politics. There was very little chance, he said, that the U.S. would pass climate legislation this year and almost no chance the Senate would ever adopt cap—and—trade, the system by which enterprises trade permits to emit within ever tighter limits. He himself, he added, was not sorry. He strongly preferred a carbon tax as a simpler and more effective mechanism.

There are many who share his preference, but the chances of the U.S. legislating such a tax seem equally remote. Besides, if the U.S. turns away from carbon trading, the future of other carbon trading systems seems perilous.

For the EU in particular, this is bad news. If Sachs is right, the chances that the Copenhagen accord, a vague statement of intent to limit the global average temperature rise to 2C, will be translated into a legally binding instrument with some chance of achieving that goal become very slim. If the U.S. cannot legislate, it cannot sign or comply with a new treaty. Without the U.S., China and India will not take on legally binding commitments. Without the world's biggest emitters, efforts to limit emissions will fail.

The Obama administration, according to Sachs, has not abandoned the battle. If it cannot fight a climate bill through the Senate, there are alternatives. One is to go for a simpler energy bill to mandate efficiencies and promote alternatives to fossil fuels, since even the most recalcitrant coal — state Senators might be persuaded that U.S. dependence on “foreign oil” is a national security weakness. And, in the absence of emissions legislation, the administration can use presidential powers and the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate the country's path to a cleaner, greener future.

Both are under active consideration. But nothing can disguise the fact that the overarching framework of the Kyoto protocol, with its potential to unlock finance for clean development in the emerging economies, has no future under this scenario. Given the condition of public finances in the developed world, there is little prospect of western taxpayers stepping up with the sums required. Without private sector finance, the framework begins to crumble away.

Kyoto, it is worth remembering, was largely a U.S. invention, the means by which the Clinton administration could discuss financing climate mitigation without mentioning tax. Other nations reluctantly accepted it in order that the U.S., then the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, could be included in the global effort to curb them. But though Clinton signed the treaty, Congress rejected it. Now the U.S. wants to dismantle it, blaming Europe for its inefficiencies and modest achievements.

It is not just in Europe that cap-and-trade has supporters. At state level in the U.S., limited forms of it exist: nine north-eastern states have been trading emissions from power plants, and a coalition of seven U.S. states and five Canadian provinces have been working towards building their own cap-and-trade system, due to begin trading in 2012.

That initiative, however, also faces trouble. In one member state, Utah, politicians have approved a resolution which implies climate change science is a “conspiracy”. Another, Arizona, dropped out of cap-and-trade plans last week, citing recession as its excuse. And California's impressive climate programme is under attack on similar grounds from Dan Logue, a Republican member of the state assembly. Plus, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is stepping down this year and it is by no means clear a successor will continue his climate policies.

A year ago, it seemed so different: in his first state of the union address, President Obama advocated an annual investment of $15bn in clean energy research and development. In the economic stimulus package that followed, billions were pledged to energy R&D, while the president's commitment to climate legislation seemed to promise the framework that would ensure such technologies were deployed.

Today, Mr. Obama's promising vision is faltering at best; the U.S. risks turning its back on the chance to dominate the next technology revolution, and global efforts to accommodate the administration's efforts to put more than a decade of U.S. climate recalcitrance behind it have not met with a corresponding policy delivery from Washington.

U.S. climate battles seem mired in the administration's political weakness and the Senate's departure from its mission to serve the public interest. This is not just a tragedy for the U.S. We are all hostage to its climate policy. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

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