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The Future of Climate Policy

Author: Toni Johnson
December 3, 2007

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A recently released U.S. Energy Information Agency annual report on U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2006 shows a 1.5 percent drop in emissions from 2005 levels. The agency attributes the drop to high energy prices and mild weather. President George W. Bush hailed the findings as evidence the United States stands “well ahead of the goal” he set in 2002 of reducing “greenhouse gas intensity” by 18 percent by 2012. The president objects to mandatory emissions caps and wants voluntary targets for reductions in “emissions intensity”—measured as emissions per unit of economic activity—as a way to address climate change without impeding economic growth.

The idea has impressed few of thse who opened the United Nations Framework Conference on Climate Policy Monday on the Indonesian island of Bali. The framework governing current global climate policy, the Kyoto Protocol, will expire in 2012. The United States is now alone in refusing to ratify the treaty as the opening session featured a standing ovation for Australia (Sydney Morning Post), whose new prime minister-elect pledged to sign the Kyoto accord, leaving the U.S. as the only other holdout in the developed world.

Much has changed since Kyoto. Warnings once dismissed as overheated now bear the stamp of worldwide scientific consensus. A synthesis report (PDF) by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found “warming of the climate system is unequivocal” and could cause irreversible damage. But the report also said mitigation efforts offer opportunities to stabilize emissions. Given these findings, most policymakers at Bali are expected to focus on new measures to reduce the volume of greenhouse-gas emissions. The European Union wants eight “building blocks,” (Thomson Financial) including reducing emissions by developed countries by 30 percent by 2020 and 60 percent to 80 percent by 2050 (from 1990 emissions levels). But questions remain on what really can be achieved—the IPCC report also predicts stabilizing emissions could cost as much as 5.5 percent of the world’s gross domestic output.

The high costs for mitigation will likely encourage the Bush administration to continue to argue for voluntary targets. In a CFR.org Podcast, Joshua W. Busby, an expert on the politics of climate change, says that most people are waiting for the “clock to run out” on the administration. But one New Zealand columnist notes that “a key challenge” (NZ Herald) for negotiators on Bali will include formulating language to sidestep U.S. objections. UN officials are contemplating allowing certain emissions-reduction technology to be given automatic UN emissions credits in an attempt to lure the United States into greater participation (Bloomberg). In the interim, a new Council Special Report argues, the United States should adopt risk-based policies on climate change so that it will have “no regrets” even if things turn out less severe than predicted.

The Economist notes that “expectations for Bali are low and being managed downward.” Environmental advocates hope Bali at best produces “an action plan” (IRIN) for agreement by 2009 on broadening the scope of the Kyoto Protocol, including more countries making reduction commitments and efforts to avoid deforestation, as explained in this CFR Backgrounder. Analysts from the Brookings Institution argue that countries such as China and India—unlikely to commit to binding emissions caps—need to make “genuine commitments” (WashingtonQuarterly), even if they are less stringent than those of developed nations. These might include commitments on energy efficiency and clean coal. Another key Bali issue may be addressing the impact of climate change on the world’s most vulnerable populations. A recent UN Development Program report notes that the world’s poorest need more help than currently being given to adapt to climate change.

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