Prospects for a New International Climate Agreement under the Obama Administration

bridges vol. 20, December 2008/ Feature Article

By Elliot Diringer

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Obama: (Climate) change has come?

After years of stalemate in the international climate negotiations, the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States in January 2009 presents an opportunity for a genuine breakthrough. Obama supports mandatory limits on US greenhouse gas emissions and favors renewed international engagement.  But unrealistic expectations about how quickly the United States will move – and how far – could damage prospects for any sort of agreement next year in Copenhagen.

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick – all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} An effective post-2012 climate agreement is impossible without the United States, the world's largest economy and largest historic emitter.  Europe was able to persuade other developed countries to push ahead with initial commitments under the Kyoto Protocol despite the US withdrawal.  But there appears very little appetite among those countries to take on new, stronger commitments without the United States, and even less prospect of commitments by the major developing countries.

Fortunately, there is at long last real momentum for stronger efforts to reduce US emissions.  While skeptics remain, the political establishment has largely accepted the scientific consensus that human-induced warming is underway and must be addressed.  Many states are taking mandatory steps to reduce emissions: 24 states have entered into regional initiatives to establish cap-and-trade systems.  Many corporate leaders are calling for mandatory federal action, and Congress is seriously debating the establishment of an economy-wide cap-and-trade system more than twice the size of Europe's Emissions Trading Scheme.

Challenges Awaiting the New US President

Looking out for a new agreement.

There is reason to believe that the new US administration opens the way to strong, concrete action.  While President George W. Bush steadfastly opposed mandatory emission limits, President-elect Obama reiterated his support for a mandatory cap-and-trade system throughout his election campaign (as did Senator McCain, the Republican candidate for president, who was one of the very earliest proponents of such a system).  But mandatory action cannot be delivered overnight.  As determined as Obama may be, he will face two major obstacles: the inherent political challenge of crafting an approach that balances competing economic and geographic interests (one with which European policy makers can surely sympathize), and the raft of other major issues awaiting him, including two wars and the worst economic crisis in half a century.

In his recent statements, the president-elect has framed climate action as a way to strengthen energy security and revitalize the US economy.  Near-term action will likely come in the form of an economic recovery package or energy legislation that, while helping to reduce US emissions, will not achieve the levels of reduction envisioned under a cap-and-trade scenario.  Enactment of a comprehensive climate package, including cap-and-trade, is unlikely in 2009.  It may come at the earliest in 2010.

Implications for the International Negotiations

International climate negotiations: climate change is global.

What does this imply for the international climate negotiations?  First, the new US administration will likely not be in a position to agree to a specific emissions target when governments meet in Copenhagen.  A full, final and ratifiable agreement is likely feasible only when Congress has enacted (or is on the verge of enacting) legislation setting firm limits on US emissions.  Beyond the question of timing, however, is the level of effort the United States is likely to undertake.  One quandary is that targets that appear quite ambitious from a US perspective would still fall short of what Europe is calling for.

While it is impossible to predict what targets could ultimately win approval from Congress, there are clear indications of the politically plausible range.  California, which has been at the leading edge of state-level climate efforts, has set a mandatory goal of reducing emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.  It has now been joined by six other states (and four Canadian provinces) in the Western Climate Initiative, which is establishing a regional cap-and-trade system with the same overall target.  At the federal level, the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act - the cap-and-trade bill put before the US Senate in June - would effectively apply that same goal at the national level.  Since winning the presidential election, Barack Obama also has called for reducing US emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

How Ambitious Will the US Be?

Across the Atlantic, this scale of effort may appear inadequate.  The European Union has set itself the goal of reducing emissions 20 percent below 1990 levels.  Within the climate negotiations, Europe is calling for all developed countries, including the United States, to go further - 25 to 40 percent below 1990.  Yet circumstances have changed considerably since 1990 - US population and emissions have grown 19 percent and 16 percent, respectively.  For the United States, returning to 1990 levels by 2020 would require serious action and investment.  It would reduce emissions about 15 percent below 2005 levels (about the same as Europe will be doing under its own target) and 24 percent below business-as-usual projections.

The United States could conceivably assume an international target somewhat stronger than the one set under a domestic cap-and-trade law.  For instance, revenues generated under the cap-and-trade system could be used to finance reduced deforestation or other emission reductions in developing countries.  Indeed, a genuine negotiation will be possible only if the United States comes prepared to bargain.  But the US target will be largely a function of the domestic debate, not international pressure, and is unlikely to deviate significantly from the numbers now before Congress.

Stronger Efforts by Emerging Economies

Another absolutely critical issue for the United States in a post-2012 agreement will be the participation of China, India, and other major emerging economies.  The lack of developing-country commitments was a major reason for the US rejection of Kyoto.  There is now an emerging consensus in Washington that the United States should proceed with mandatory action at home, with or without developing-country commitments, provided the legislation includes trade provisions that aim to protect US industry from competitive harm by imposing similar costs on energy-intensive imports from countries like China.  But the United States will not take the next step - assuming a binding international commitment - unless that agreement provides for some measure of commitment by the emerging economies.  

Under the Bali Action Plan, which frames the current round of negotiations, the future mitigation actions of developing countries are to be "measurable, reportable, and verifiable."  China, India, Mexico, South Africa, and other emerging economies have adopted or are developing national climate strategies outlining policies that, while in most cases not driven by climate concerns, help moderate their emissions.  One promising approach is to incorporate such plans or policies in a post-2012 agreement as commitments - conditioned on appropriate incentives and support from developed countries.     

The Outlook for Copenhagen

Certainly developing countries will not be prepared to enter into such commitments before the United States assumes a binding international target which, again, is -unlikely in Copenhagen.  Under these circumstances, the best plausible outcome for Copenhagen may be an intermediary agreement on the basic architecture of a post-2012 framework - for instance, binding economy-wide targets for developed countries, policy commitments for the major emerging economies, and support mechanisms for technology, finance, and adaptation in developing countries.  This would then serve as the basis for further negotiations on details such as specific target and funding levels. An intermediary framework agreement will be most credible, and most likely to induce developing-country commitments, if it includes an agreed-upon range for developed country targets, making it imperative that the US-EU gap be bridged by Copenhagen.

Anger, frustration, and impatience are understandable after years of US inaction and intransigence.  Europe has shown remarkable leadership on climate change.  With a change in US administration providing a fresh opening, now is the time to capitalize on that leadership.  The world can ill afford a replay of Kyoto, with Europe demanding more than can be delivered and the United States ultimately walking away.  We need realism, not brinksmanship.  Instead of a full and final deal in Copenhagen, we must aim for what is in fact feasible, and set expectations now so that the outcome is received as a success.  The risks and consequences of failure are otherwise far too great.


The author, Elliot Diringer, is director of International Strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.  He served in the Clinton White House as deputy press secretary and as a senior policy advisor and director of communications at the Council on Environmental Quality.  In those capacities, he helped develop major policy initiatives, led White House communications strategy on the environment, and was a member of US delegations to the international climate change negotiations.  Before coming to Washington, Mr. Diringer was an environmental reporter and an editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, where he covered the 1992 Earth Summit and authored several award-winning environmental series.

[The above article is an updated version of an article written by Elliot Diringer that was first published October 22, 2008, on the Heinrich Boll Foundation's Transatlantic Climate Policy Group.]