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CQ: Empty-Handed Before the World on Cap-and-Trade

Author: Adriel Bettelheim
September 28, 2009

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Adriel Bettelheim raises questions about the Obama administration's ability to commit to promises made on carbon emissions and cap-and-trade.

Had things gone according to plan, President Obama would have used last week's United Nations General Assembly session and the meeting of the Group of 20 heads of state in Pittsburgh to demonstrate that the United States is unflinchingly committed to capping carbon emissions and ready to lead efforts to draft a new multinational treaty to replace the expiring Kyoto Protocol on climate change.

The White House repeatedly signaled that it wanted to take a more activist role in curbing greenhouse gases than had the administrations of either Bill Clinton or George W. Bush, and to claim the moral high ground at a U.N. climate conference in Copenhagen this December, during which negotiators from 192 countries will try to draft a follow-on accord to Kyoto.

But a long list of political complications at home and abroad has forced the administration to recalibrate its message, raising serious questions about the United States' ability to make substantive commitments on one of the president's priorities.

On the domestic front, the Senate appears so consumed with the health care debate that it is likely to defer action until next year on climate change legislation that would cap carbon emissions and set in place a system for trading emissions credits. That deprives the White House of tangible evidence that it is bringing the United States into a carbon-constrained world and a concrete set of domestic targets it can try to incorporate into a new global treaty.

And on the foreign front, Team Obama finds itself at odds with Europe over the central details of what a new treaty might look like, including how much aid to give developing countries and how to calculate national emissions reductions. U.S. officials also are trying to navigate a complicated diplomatic relationship with China, the world's largest producer of greenhouse gases, which used the Sept. 22 U.N. gathering to announce that it would reduce carbon dioxide emissions relative to economic output without saying how ambitious the goal would be or whether it would lock in the cuts as part of an international framework. Few expect Congress to embrace any new global climate pact without concrete commitments from Beijing.

The upshot is that one of Obama's top first-term domestic initiatives is on hold indefinitely, forcing him to issue generic calls for international cooperation and to acknowledge that the United States has "dragged its feet" on the issue.

The political consequences could be dear. If the U.S. and other industrialized countries can't make progress at Copenhagen, experts predict, Obama will find it more difficult to persuade Congress to move cap-and-trade legislation next year, right before the midterm elections and with the economy still crawling out of a deep recession. That, in turn, would deprive his administration of a coherent negotiating position in future global climate talks and increase the likelihood that Europe, Russia and other emerging market countries might cut a deal on emissions caps that works against U.S. interests.

"The administration understands it can't get a final deal in Copenhagen because of the lack of clarity from Congress, so it's focusing on broad goals and hammering out the legal form" for a treaty, said Michael A. Levi, senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Levi said the most realistic short-term expectation is for industrialized countries to abandon attempts to negotiate legally binding short-term emissions caps and instead set broad parameters for a treaty that can be firmed up before the targets set in the Kyoto accord expire in 2012. The biggest prize, he says, might be for negotiators to agree on a system for measuring, reporting and verifying emissions reductions, to blunt suspicions that any country isn't doing its part.

But the leaders of some countries complain that baby steps at Copenhagen will be tantamount to allowing the United States to put domestic policies ahead of international cooperation. Some of the loudest criticism comes from the European Union, whose 27 member countries pledged to cut emissions in 2020 by 20 percent below 1990 levels, absent comparable action from the United States or other countries.

"I submit that asking an international conference to sit around looking out the window for months, while one chamber of the legislature of one country deals with its other business, is simply not a realistic political position," said John Bruton, the EU ambassador to the United States, in an interview, referring to the Senate inaction.

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