Climate deal deadlock

In December delegates from 192 countries will meet in Copenhagen to agree a new treaty on climate change. Tom Toulson reports.

Jude Law's Hamlet has opened on Broadway after a run in the moody setting of Kastle Kronberg in Denmark. Meanwhile, another tragedy of angst and procrastination moves inexorably in the other direction, towards Copenhagen. On the issue of climate change the US finds itself paralysed by its own legislative process. The developed and the developing countries continue to argue over the scope of their respective commitments. Unless the deadlock is somehow broken, no meaningful agreement will be reached in Copenhagen. According to Gordon Brown, "if we miss this opportunity to protect our planet, we cannot hope for a second chance some time in the future." Time is running out.

Two years ago, at the UN climate talks in Bali, governments from around the world agreed a timescale for working towards a new agreement on climate change. The conference in Copenhagen marks the end of that process. It was meant to produce a successor to 1997's Kyoto Agreement, which set targets for reducing carbon emissions. Kyoto wasn't much of an agreement. Only a small number of countries signed up to it. The US, under Bill Clinton, was one. However the Senate then refused to ratify the treaty. It had no legal force in America. Other countries that signed up simply ignored it. Canada has exceeded its target for carbon emissions by 29 per cent. It has not received any sanctions. Global carbon emissions have risen 25 per cent since 1997. The weaknesses of the Kyoto treaty reveal the scale of the challenge faced in Copenhagen. Any treaty must actually result in carbon reductions. It must be enforceable, or at the very least, the participating countries must be willing to observe it. And the United States must be on board.

The average global temperature has risen 0.7C since pre-industrial times. Many analysts agree that a rise of 1.5C by 2020 is inevitable. In July the G8 countries agreed that levels should be kept beneath 2C. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has said that to have any chance of reaching this target, emission levels would have to begin to decline within fifteen to twenty years. There are many issues to be addressed at Copenhagen. Apart from the business of setting targets for each country and coming up with a way of ensuring they're met, measures to tackle deforestation must also be agreed.

And then there's the issue of money. Developing nations want the developed world to help finance climate adaptation infrastructure. This means many billion of dollars for building alternative energy sources as well as things like flood defences. The industrialised nations have a different vision. They want the developing world to commit to significant emission targets. There is some distance between the two camps. There was hope that progress might be made following the UN meeting in New York last month, where China, India and Japan all promised to decrease intensity of carbon production. It hasn't happened. Delegates on both sides are meeting to discuss the issues in Bangkok and things are getting ugly. Each side accuses the other of obstinacy. According to the EU's chief negotiator, Artur Runge-Metzger:

"What you can see is that a lot of countries still park on their positions: they are not willing to look yet for a compromise. Everyone tries to convince the other that my position is the best one, while not seeing that if you want to have a deal in Copenhagen you will have to step down from your position."

Note the use of "you", no mention of "we". On the other side, China is making increasingly condemnatory noises. The director of their department for climate change, Su Wei, has said he sees: "a clear pattern: as soon as an agreement is reached or an instrument is adopted, efforts get under way to undermine it, to move further away from their historical responsibilities." That's right, historical responsibilities, not future ones. In other words, the responsibilies of the countries that got us into this mess; the ones who've already benefited from a century of pumping carbon into the atmosphere.

The Chinese ambassador for climate change, Yu Qingtai, has been even more forthright: "We now hear statements and actions that will lead to a termination of the Kyoto protocol and everything that it represents." He was referring to an admission made by a member of President Obama's administration that the US is unlikely to have domestic legislation on cutting emissions in place before Copenhagen. "Obviously we'd like to be through the process. But that's not going to happen," said Carol Browner, one of the President's advisors on the environment. The director of the climate and energy programme at the World Resources Institute (WRI), Jennifer Morgan, explains the importance of having this legislation in place. "It's fundamental, because it's the way in which the world can get a sense of how serious the US is in taclking climate change and the level of effort it's ready to undertake." It sounds to the developing countries like the US is saying it can't be bothered to deal with the problem. This ignores, perhaps wilfully, the impossibly tricky predicament Obama faces.

The President risks reprising the role of Bill Clinton in 1997 if he goes to Copenhagen to sign a treaty knowing full well the Senate may choose to ignore it. His administration has tried hard to get legislation in place. After two years the Waxman-Markey bill eventually passed the House of Congress by a narrow margin. It then had to be reworked to stand any chance of getting through the Senate. This isn't just a process of struggling with the wording, it also involves tough negotiations with politicians on all sides to get a sense of what they'll accept. It took time for the new climate change bill (renamed Boxer-Kerry after the senators who presented it and who are now supposed to shepherd it through) to reach the Senate floor. It has actually been beefed up. It proposes a cap-and-trade system, whereby an overall cap is placed on emissions but companies who can easily achieve reductions can do so on behalf of companies that can't in return for a fee (in other words, quotas can be traded). It aims for a reduction by 2020 of 20 per cent from the emission levels of 2005 (instead of the previous bill's target of 17 per cent). This sounds like a lot until you realise that this equates to a mere 4 per cent reduction from 1990 levels, compared with the EU's target of 20 to 30 per cent over the same period. The prospects for this bill look bleak. Predictably it's been attacked on all sides by interest groups, for going too far and not far enough. "The losers would be millions of Americans and American companies," say the American Petroleum Institute (API). But according to Greenpeace it "falls far short of the minimum emissions reductions scientists say are necessary from a big and wealthy polluter like the US." Republican senators have criticised it for being unaffordable. And some Democratic senators are also worried about how it will play in their home states. But the biggest problem the bill faces is not the flak it's getting, it's the lack of floor time.

The Senate is tangled up in heathcare policy. Senators are eating and sleeping insurance reform and 'public options'. It seems they don't have time to think about two things at once, let alone vote on them. At the current rate of progress Boxer-Kerry won't get through by December. "We will go to Copenhagen with whatever we have," said Browner. They may not have much. And yet they seem to think that an embryonic bill will be enough to satisfy China that the US will make a significant commitment. It won't be enough and yet it has to be. Otherwise in December President Obama may end up being miscast as the prevaricating Prince of Denmark, saying to himself:

"I do not know

Why yet I live to say 'This thing's to do',

Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means,

To do't."

Continue learning below