As the last round of “intersessional” climate talks before Copenhagen opened on Monday in Barcelona, all eyes were looking in the same direction they were when we left Bangkok three weeks earlier: at the United States. Without American numbers on mitigation (or emissions reductions) and finance (for developing nations to build their own clean energy economies, and also to adapt to the impacts of climate change), any real forward progress in the talks is just about impossible.
“We need a clear target from the United States in Copenhagen,” urged Yvo de Boer, who’s charged with steering this UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) process to some kind of December resolution.” “That is an essential component of the puzzle.” The problem is that the U.S. isn’t putting anything out there. At least not yet. Not while the Kerry-Boxer bill limps through Senate subcommittees back on Capitol Hill.
And that’s really where De Boer’s comment – and most criticism of the American position – is directed. Not at the negotiating team here, but towards Washington. In the U.S. delegation’s defense, their hands have been tied pretty tight. The State Department hasn’t wanted to write a check that our domestic politics can’t cash. If Kyoto taught us anything, it’s that nobody can trust the U.S. until they see what’s actually written into law. (Quick history lesson–the U.S. signed the Kyoto Protocol back in 1998; eleven years later, it still hasn’t been ratified. At least 185 countries have ratified the Protocol, from Russia to Rwanda to Australia to Iraq. Iraq!) So there’s a massive trust gap. To be a credible player going into Copenhagen, the U.S. has to show something concrete coming from the home front. Lead negotiator Jonathan Pershing has not been at all coy about the fact that he needs to bring home a treaty that will be signed and ratified. (And, yes, if all this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. The story was more or less the same last month in Bangkok.)
So everyone’s waiting on America. Waiting for those crucial U.S. cards to land on the table. Without them, we’re seeing the kickoff of a couple diplomatic games: the guessing game and the shame game. In the absence of official figures from the U.S. delegation, some folks are speculating as to what they might look like when and if they do. “If you look at Obama’s election indications of what he thinks the U.S. can do,” de Boer said in his press conference, “and look at the legislation that came out of the House and see what it is in the Senate now, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where the U.S. is likely to end up.”
For the record, the Kerry-Boxer bill would commit a roughly 7-percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2020. This is well below the comparable midterm mitigation targets set out by the European Union (20- or 30-percent, depending on whether or not other rich nations sign on) and Japan (25-percent), and not even close to the 40-percent cuts called for by most developing countries.
But even such a modest (to put it very gently) commitment would be more productive than no numbers at all. Thus the shaming. De Boer openly praised some key developing nations, thanking China, India, Mexico and Brazil for bringing their respective and ambitious goals to the table. “Today, already China is the world leader in terms of reducing emissions,” de Boer offered. “The world is lacking similar clarity from industrial nations.” It was clear who he was referring to. Piling on, the Chair of the COP15 talks, Danish minister for climate and energy Connie Hedegaard, added that “[it's] hard to imagine how the American president can be receiving the Nobel Peace Prize on Dec. 10 in Oslo, 100 kilometers from Copenhagen, and at the same time send an empty-handed delegation to Copenhagen.”
It’s lining up to be a tough week for the U.S. team, as these barbs will likely sharpen and delegates are forced onto the diplomatic defensive. The best hope for some truly productive dialogue this week in Barcelona actually comes from back in D.C. tomorrow. President Obama will meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, and other key E.U. foreign policy players for a U.S.-E.U. Summit in the White House, and climate finance is on the agenda. After European leaders laid out their first finance proposal on Friday, pressure is on the States to make a formal offer. We’ll soon find out whether the White House is comfortable stepping in front of Congress on the critical issue of finance.