Obama Cannot Make It to Copenhagen?

Wednesday, 30. September 2009     0 comment(s)
Anna Korppoo
Researcher - The EU's Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia research programme
Bangkok Climate Change Talks. Bangkok Climate Change Talks.
The Bangkok climate talks have begun under a gloomy atmosphere: it’s not only the rainy season in Thailand bringing dark clouds above the local UN conference centre, but also the failures of the last week UN climate summit and the G20 meeting to solve the deadlock of negotiations. In the words of Yvo de Boer, the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change: ‘Time is not just pressing, it has almost run out.’

Especially the Obama administration was expected to contribute more in the New York and Pittsburgh meetings last week. But it was China that provided the strongest signal in the UN climate summit. The Chinese president Hu Jintao stated that China would curb its carbon intensity by a "notable margin" by 2020 from the 2005 level. Even though observers - including the US administration - have pointed out that the Chinese statement remains unclear until it is quantified, the statement was widely considered as a significant step ahead, partly because carbon intensity was introduced as the indicator rather than energy intensity used before.

The US administration has quite clearly stated in the past that it is not necessarily expecting China to commit to a numerical target. According to the US climate change envoy Todd Stern’s statement in June, the US does not expect China to accept a national cap. Thus, a simple observer may have got the impression that the Chinese statement in New York was coming close to what was originally expected by the US. But the US administration has since changed its approach: Stern was asking for a Chinese ‘number’ after the New York summit. More radical observers may even suggest that the Obama administration is playing down the importance of the Chinese commitment in order to continue hiding behind its back.

In the US, state level action is well under way as for instance recently demonstrated by the US Ambassador to Finland Bruce Oreck in his presentation, and it indeed looks impressive. This action is often also referred to by American experts when the lack of federal level commitment is criticized from outside; and they have a fair point to make - domestic policies and measures are what we are after in order to cut carbon emissions.

But the Obama administration may well have to wait until next year for the Senate decision on the crucial Waxman-Markey climate bill which would establish what the country can commit to on the international level. Unfortunately, the lack of US commitment in Copenhagen will lead to radically lower expectations than originally anticipated as other parties are unwilling to commit to another round of global action without the certainty of the US doing its fair share as the second largest emitter in the world, only just behind China.

The US administration needs to recognize that Copenhagen is likely to fail in the absence of the Senate decision and be open about the chances of committing to a meaningful global contribution in Copenhagen. Similarly, other parties must understand the importance of domestic politics in the United States, and that the Obama administration has only little it can do to influence the pace of the Senate procedures.

While the Bangkok climate talks continue to struggle with the excess negotiation text - and keeping a holding pattern for the US Senate - it is time to be realistic about what can be achieved in Copenhagen. If the Obama administration is not ready by December, it might be the least of evils to provide them with the time they need, hopefully just couple of months.

Texts reflect the opinions of the individual authors

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