04 August, 2010

No bill no deal

Sergio Abranches

Lack of a Federal climate bill in the U.S. is likely to jeopardize Cancun’s climate talks.

In an interview with ClimateWire, U.S. chief climate negotiator Todd Stern said the Obama administration is “not backing away” from its Copenhagen pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels in the coming decade and more than 80 percent by mid-century. This is good news, but not enough to push Cancun’s climate talks beyond the Copenhagen Accord.

Stern has also tried to ease concerns that Obama’s failure to get Congress to vote an energy and climate legislation would impair negotiations at COP16, in Cancun.

“People who frame this all around whether there is U.S. legislation or not, that if there’s legislation we’re in the end zone … I don’t believe that. It’s not the magic bullet, and it’s also not the thing that sinks the ship.”

The above statement amounts to nothing more than good old diplomatic damage management. He knows that the without a legally binding domestic climate program the U.S. will hardly be able to play an effective role on global climate talks. Moreover, the lack of a clear political decision by the U.S. Congress on climate change and greenhouse gas emissions mitigation is likely to contribute to a deadlock in Cancun. A final global deal will probably be delayed for at least one year more.

Let’s talk plain politics: it is not possible for the U.S. to play a leading and decisive role on global climate politics without having in place a clear and legally binding domestic portfolio of actions on climate change. Every player needs a bill at home to back its pledges at the international level.

A recent BASIC meeting, in Rio de Janeiro, has showed that the major emerging economies are rethinking the nature and scope of their responsibilities regarding global climate change. They seem more prepared to move forward and turn most of the Copenhagen commitments into institutionalized global policies, provided the U.S. shows more concrete and effective commitments.

The Brazilian government remains the major exception today. It opposes any change of attitude from the BASIC countries. But India, South Africa and China are already more willing to admit the fact that they will have to assume more responsibilities in the near future. It is, however, unlikely that they’ll accept any change in the status quo, before the U.S. Presidency and Congress are able to give legal form to the country’s commitments in the Copenhagen Accord and signal they’re willing to go beyond that in the future.

Writing internationally assumed commitments into law will turn them into domestic obligations, and give them full credibility. An international protocol, like the Kyoto Protocol, without legal domestic backing means close to nothing.

Stern knows that. And because he knows it, after making the usual disclaim, he acknowledged that

“The fact that we don’t have it [the legislation] right now will certainly affect the atmospherics of the negotiations, but the fundamentals of it aren’t different. (…) The President has made it perfectly clear that he’s committed to energy and climate legislation, and we will press on.”

This means that the U.S. will arrive in Cancun with nothing more than Obama’s word that he’ll keep fighting for energy and climate legislation. Nothing very different from what has happened in Copenhagen, at COP15. As several negotiators have told Climate Wire they are compelled to trust President Obama’s word. But the fact remains that the U.S. will not have moved one single bit ahead after Copenhagen. On the contrary, in Copenhagen there was hope that the U.S. federal climate legislation would be forthcoming soon in 2010. Now it failed to pass, and the prospects for another try are unclear so far. The next move on climate legislation in the U.S. will very much depend on the results of midterm elections, and right now the outlook for the government’s majority is rather bleak.

The setback for climate legislation in the U.S. and Brazil’s refusal to support other BASIC country’s proposals for a change in the terms of negotiation will likely block any real progress in Cancun. If nothing changes until the end of November, COP16 is likely to be one more of an already long list of deadlocked meetings of the parties to the Climate Convention. That’s what diplomats and observers from Brazil, China and India are saying.

The U.S. is the key to unlock global climate talks. If Washington moves, than it is likely that the BASIC countries will move, and the probability of a legally binding accord increases significantly. The Brazilian government would have to follow suit independently of the outcome of the October presidential election. The Chinese government, already showing more propensity to change than the Brazilian, would not be able to resist the pressure. India and South Africa are already persuaded they’ll have to move forward.

To make it short and blunt: no U.S. climate bill, no global climate deal.

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