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CLIMATE CHANGE-US: Too Little, Too Late for Copenhagen?

Matthew Berger

WASHINGTON, Nov 6 2009 (IPS) - The momentum that U.S. climate change legislation has picked up in recent weeks will not be enough to get it through prior to the Copenhagen climate talks that kick off Dec. 7. It has also come at a steep price for those most committed to seeing such legislation pass.

These are the facts that have come to light in recent days as the Senate’s climate bill was voted through a key committee Thursday and a powerful trio of senators joined together to build a version of the bill they hope will garner enough bipartisan support to become law. Meanwhile, Copenhagen looms just over four weeks away.

Thursday morning, Sen. Barbara Boxer pushed the Clean Energy Jobs & American Power Act through the Senate Environment and Public Works committee, which she chairs, despite a boycott by committee Republicans, who had called for additional analysis of the bill’s economic impacts.

On Wednesday, Sens. John Kerry, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham announced they would work outside and parallel to the committee process in an effort to craft legislation that could appeal to a broader number of senators – hopefully, the 60 needed for a filibuster-proof majority.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents a huge number of domestic business interests and has tried to undermine climate legislation efforts in the past, came out in support of the three senators’ effort Tuesday, saying it hopes Congress enacts climate legislation “in a bipartisan manner that recognizes regional differences, the state of the technology, and the compelling need for a solution that minimizes overall economic impact.”

Kerry and Graham said in a New York Times op-ed in October that, in addition to investment in wind and solar, their bipartisan proposals will include increases in additional nuclear plants and oil exploration.

Later that month, Graham told a radio show in his home state of South Carolina, “Here’s what I need for me to support a climate change bill: I need an offshore drilling provision that would allow us to increase our inventories and generate money to create jobs and create more domestic capacity – not just some drilling, but aggressive drilling.”

Thursday, Graham said he would have voted against the bill passed out of committee earlier in the day if it were to come to the floor as currently written.

Lieberman is part of a coalition of senators hoping to include financial incentives for new nuclear plants in any final bill.

Environmental groups, while happy to see any progress on an issue that was deliberately ignored under the George W. Bush administration, regret that such elements have to be included.

“First and foremost what we want to see is an emission cap,” says Sarah Saylor, a senior legislative representative with Earthjustice. However, “moving in the direction of something that would increase emissions would be the least palliative option,” she says.

Saylor sees a disconnect between “what the politics of [legislation] will dictate versus what the climate will dictate.”

Despite Kerry and Graham’s contention that there is currently too much regulation of and too little investment in nuclear power, she says that “predominantly, in the past, there’s been a lot of federal funding going to nuclear…rather than other, clean energy sources like solar.”

The House bill passed in June aimed for a 17 percent reduction in domestic greenhouse emissions by 2020, compared with 2005 levels. The Senate bill currently aims for 20 percent, but that is expected to change once, or if, it makes it to the Senate floor.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has called for 25 to 40 percent reductions, according to 1990 levels, by 2020.

Sen. Max Baucus, one of the Democratic senators known to be hesitant about climate legislation, said at the committee meeting Thursday he would like the target lowered to 17 percent with a “trigger” to up the cuts to 20 percent if other countries adopt similar measures.

Those adoptions would take place in the Copenhagen negotiations that start a month from Saturday.

It appears highly unlikely the U.S. Congress will have anything substantive on the table prior to those talks. Four other committees still have to pass their portions of the Senate bill and Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he would call for further analysis by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of the eventual climate bill formed out of those committee portions plus the Kerry-Lieberman-Graham proposals. The analysis alone is expected to take five weeks.

Asked what he is expecting from the Copenhagen meeting at a breakfast talk Wednesday, Kerry said, “We don’t have time in these four weeks to flesh out every crossed ‘t’ and dotted ‘i’ of the treaty. What I would look for is a binding and real political agreement… that will embrace finance mechanisms, adaptation, the targeting levels [for emissions]. So you will have the framework of the treaty.”

He expects the treaty details and language would then be worked out over the next year.

U.N. climate czar Yvo de Boer echoed that sentiment speaking in Barcelona Thursday, where the last round of talks prior to the U.N.-led negotiations in Denmark was being held this week. “I don’t think we can get a legally binding agreement by Copenhagen,” de Boer said. “I think that we can get that within a year after Copenhagen.”

The lack of comprehensive U.S. legislation may not, then, make a significant difference in the success of the talks. But there are other reasons, as well, why the talks might achieve something even without U.S. negotiators having the domestic mandate emissions-limiting laws would provide.

“What people seem to forget is that there are two negotiating tracks,” says Kate Homer, a U.S. policy analyst with Friends of the Earth, referring to the fact that in Copenhagen there will two separate negotiations: one amongst the 192 countries that are party to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, signed in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and another between the 184 countries of the 1997’s Kyoto Protocol.

The U.S. is only a part of the former. The Kyoto countries will discuss the post-2012 emissions reduction commitments of industrial countries while the U.S. and the other UNFCCC countries will discuss broader long-term action on climate change.

“The U.S. having legislation or not has no bearing on” the latter track, Homer says. “We [Friends of the Earth] fully expect parties to the Kyoto Protocol to commit to binding targets.”

Regardless, she says, “the [Barack] Obama administration has the authority to offer emissions targets even without the passage of the Senate legislation – and we expect him to do so.”

Saylor, however, cites then-Vice President Al Gore’s commitment to the Kyoto Protocol ahead of any congressional action on climate change and the U.S.’s eventual failure to sign on to that treaty.

The Senate legislation is important, she says, “So that the Obama administration has a clear idea of where U.S. climate legislation is going to go.”

Still, she says, for other countries, “It’s good to see the U.S. putting in a good faith effort.”

The effort may not be good enough, however. African nations walked out of the Barcelona talks Thursday over a lack of commitment to emissions reductions by developed countries.

“Developing countries are very concerned that the developed world hasn’t been as serious as it needs to be about putting emissions reductions on the table,” says Homer.

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