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Major Emitters Go to Washington

Author: Toni Johnson
Updated: September 28, 2007

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Just days after UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon hosted a “high-level” day-long meeting on climate change in New York, where world leaders shared their views on how to proceed once the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012, some of the world’s top greenhouse-gas emitters headed to Washington. President Bush spoke on the second day of the major emitter conference, billed as a “complementary” process to talks on post-Kyoto framework. In his speech, Bush asserted that the world must produce fewer emissions but “in a way that does not undermine economic growth.”The conference is aimed at getting nations to set their own emissions limits rather than signing on to internationally binding targets (IHT). Under the U.S. plan, there would be no minimum requirements or penalties (Economist.com) for failing to meet goals. One delegate criticized (AFP) the president’s tack contending what he was hoping to hear “a very strong commitment to tackle climate change, not just through voluntary action or vague references.”

Pressure has mounted on the United States to assume a leadership role on climate change since Washington rejected the Kyoto Protocol early in Bush’s tenure. The president shows no signs of reversing his opposition to mandatory emissions reductions – the core of his administration’s objections to Kyoto (AFP). In a recent article, CFR’s David Victor and Danny Cullenward, a Stanford researcher, suggest a similar forum to the one hosted in Washington for major emitters working together outside the UN process. Some experts see this meeting as a missed opportunity. Center for American Progress fellows Todd Stern and Brookings Institution Managing Director William Antholis assert the major emitter forum could have facilitated the UN process, but instead the Bush administration is pushing “purely aspirational long-term goals for reducing emissions without mandates.” Phil Clapp, who heads the National Environmental Trust, a U.S.-based environmental group, called the conference a “talkfest” (PDF) and predicted no definitive proposals for mandatory targets would be on the table.

But the Heritage Foundation’s Ben Lieberman and Brett D. Schaefer favor the administration’s approach, calling Kyoto “imperceptive, inflexible, and ineffectual.” Similarly, William Yeatman, an energy analyst at the anti-Kyoto Competitive Enterprise Institute, contends that the economic toll of cutting emissions under Kyoto could make the major emitters process “the only game around.

Meanwhile, the Democratic leaders in Congress want to force the Bush administration to support mandatory cuts at home and abroad, even as they pursue legislation on a national policy (Forbes) on climate change. But dissent exists in Congress and elsewhere on how best to pursue those ends. Many pro-climate policy lawmakers favor a “cap-and-trade” system, which, as this Backgrounder explains, allows emitters under binding emissions limits to buy the right to exceed those limits from entities with surplus emissions allowances. Victor and Cullenward, among others, argue a carbon tax is more favorable because it provides “fewer opportunities for political favoritism.” The U.S. Congressional Budget Office, in April, said capping emissions could result in higher prices (PDF) for consumers.

Some experts say it is difficult for the United States to discuss international climate policy with other major emitters because of a lack of a cohesive U.S. policy on the issue. CFR’s Elizabeth Economy argues the best way to engage China—which is set to overtake the United States as the largest emitter in the world—is to lead on climate change policy, but the United States currently has no “credibility” because it has been “laggard” on reducing its own emissions. Some U.S. lawmakers worry (CQ) that limiting emisisons will reduce U.S. competitiveness with countries like China. To truly move China, New York Times Columnist Thomas Friedman argues, Washington has to show such a policy is “better, more profitable, more healthy, more innovative, more efficient, more successful.”

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