The inability of the US to commit to reducing greenhouse emissions has
long been cited as a reason behind the stalemate of global climate
And any faint hopes for success at top-level international
climate-change negotiations in Cancun were dimmed when Barack Obama’s
Democratic party lost ground to conservatives in US mid-term elections.
The US, one of the two major carbon polluters, has yet to commit to legal targets that would reduce greenhouse emissions.
Negotiators at the convention that begins this week now aspire to
achieve nothing greater than agreement on technical issues, such as how
to account for emissions in developing nations.
“Climate change is a particularly challenging issue as it must be
handled at the global level,” said Professor Daniel Esty, who teaches
at the Yale Law School and the Yale School of Forestry &
Environmental Studies. “No country can solve the problem on its own.
“The US is not in a position to negotiate a final treaty because it lacks a federal position on the issue.”
The American president has been working on a climate change and energy
bill stipulating some cuts. But with the rival Republican party gaining
control of the US House of Representatives, the chances of this bill
becoming law are slim, he said.
“We have a divided situation now,” said Prof Esty, who advised the
Obama campaign on energy and environmental issues in 2007 and 2008.
“The Republican leadership in the Senate and the House have indicated
they are not willing to work with the president.”
Dr Anna Korppoo, the programme director at the Helsinki-based Finnish
Institute of International Affairs, said the situation dramatically
lessened any chance for a breakthrough in Cancun.
“Now it is clear President Obama will not get any climate change
legislation through,” she said. “It is impossible to come up with
The difficulty, she said, is that all players have been expecting concessions from other parties in order to commit themselves.
Discussions in Cancun are to be divided into two main tracks. One seeks
to redefine responsibilities under the Kyoto Protocol, an agreement
that obliges 37 industrialised countries to reduce greenhouse emissions
by five per cent on 1990 levels in the period between 2008 and 2012.
The Cancun convention track will focus on the US, which did not ratify
the Kyoto Protocol, and examine the responsibilities of developing
One of the key countries in the negotiations is China, which is
considered the world’s other major polluting country. As a developing
nation, China is not obliged to commit to any legal emissions cuts.
However, some industrial countries have demanded that China make
concessions before they commit themselves to any deeper reductions.
Prof Esty said the lack of a federal US position represents a missed
opportunity. Had America been able to come with anything concrete at
the negotiating table, China could have committed as well, he said.