Senate must do the right thing prior to the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference

October 9, 2009 — by Arnav Dugar

As the December Copenhagen climate change conference draws near, expectations of change are gaining impetus. However, since countries are looking out for their own economies before the environment, the meeting may fail to change the environment.

To curb greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) adopted the Kyoto pact in 1997 under the auspices of the United Nations. This year the meeting aims to reach a new agreement to overcome the shortcomings of the original pact.

Given the conflicting interests of different countries, the decisions about policies on GHG emissions are likely to get political. Even a tinge of disagreement among the international community could lead to a cascade of finger-pointing hindering progress in limiting GHG emissions.

The U.S. is showing internal signs of disapproval, paralleling the events leading to the country’s rejection of the Kyoto pact. The Waxman-Markey bill, aiming to cap carbon dioxide emissions, passed the House of Representatives and received approval by President Barack Obama. However, the Senate is trying to thwart its legislation because of its potential negative impact on the economy.

In Kyoto, former vice president Al Gore had agreed to the pact on behalf of the U.S. However, because developing countries such as India, China and Brazil were exempt from meeting any specific targets, the U.S. government considered the concord flawed, too costly to introduce and therefore harmful to the economy. The Senate seems likely to make a similar decision.

As it did with the Kyoto pact, the U.S.’s indecision may force the international community to take years to come to another agreement, becoming a political quarrel over vested interests rather than a genuine attempt to improve the climate.

The U.S., contributing over 20 percent of global GHG emissions, never ratified the pact since both President Clinton and President Bush, Jr. refused to approve it. Similar opposition by other countries delayed the pact until Russia finally ratified it in 2005, achieving the 55 percent limit with 126 countries even though the world’s top three polluters—the US, China, and the EU—contribute over 55 of GHG emissions.

One major purpose of the discussions in Copenhagen is to find a solution to the Kyoto pact’s deficiencies, but the solutions proposed are still inadequate. UNFCCC plans to overcome the Kyoto pact’s lack of enforcement imposing sanctions on countries that disregard their agreements. Canada, for example, exceeded its Kyoto target by 29 percent but has not been punished to date.

However, sanctions on any of the major polluters would hurt the already weak global economy and are impractical, uprooting the premise of its enforcement. These nations are not fooled by the empty threat. The pact may be a mere window dressing with no real substance.

Since the politics and economics of climate change are so deeply intertwined, it is unlikely that the countries will come to a decision in a timely fashion. As with the Kyoto pact, it may take years to come to another agreement and may become a political quarrel over vested interests rather than a genuine attempt to improve the climate.

The U.S., China and the EU have to start working together to reduce GHG emissions before involving the rest of the world. At least the U.S. needs to come to national agreement before expecting much from the rest of the world community. If the Senate is not going to ratify it, the meeting will be another fruitless waste of time.

There is hope the U.S. will have some real participation since, unlike past presidents, Obama is willing to push toward an international agreement. Nonetheless, if the U.S. itself cannot pass the Waxman-Markey bill or come to any consensus about climate change, how can an international forum be expected to succeed?

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