Transition's Timing Hits Climate Talks
U.S. Delegates Report to Bush, Not Obama

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 8, 2008

Barack Obama's pledge to make the United States a leader in confronting global warming raised hopes that his election would rapidly end the long impasse in international negotiations over climate change, but the timing of the presidential transition has severely dimmed those expectations as the current round of talks comes to a head this week in Poland.

The U.S. delegates still report to President Bush, and they made it clear last week that they will not commit to specific reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that would bind the incoming administration. Obama, meanwhile, has hewed to his one-president-at-a-time policy and declined to send his representatives to the Poznan meeting, as many had expected.

The result, a number of negotiators say, is that the world will have a hard time meeting the long-standing 2009 target for reaching a binding agreement on carbon emissions reductions to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

The delicate state of the global climate talks -- weighted down by the worldwide financial crisis -- highlights the challenges the negotiators face. The Bush administration and its allies successfully resisted setting specific climate goals during the past few negotiating rounds, and there are doubts that Obama can get Congress to approve a sufficiently ambitious national carbon cap by the time delegates meet again next December in Copenhagen. And without a U.S. commitment in place, other nations will be reluctant to sign a deal.

"A full, final, ratifiable agreement just isn't in the cards" next year, said Elliot Diringer, director of international strategies for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. "It's really important to have realistic expectations going into Copenhagen, and then there's a chance of success."

Still, international officials hoping for action on climate change have been encouraged by Obama's election, especially in light of his videotaped message last month to a bipartisan group of governors that "once I take office, you can be sure that the United States will once again engage vigorously in these negotiations and help lead the world toward a new era of global cooperation on climate change." The top U.N. negotiator said Friday that he remains confident that the United States could sign on to a global pact next year even without congressional action.

But in Europe, the question remains, "What is the U.S. administration going to do, and how are they going to act?" said Frederic Hauge, who heads the Norwegian environmental group Bellona and holds a key post on a European Commission panel pursuing zero-emissions power generation.

The answer to the question, however, is complicated.

Bush's delegation is headed by Paula J. Dobriansky, undersecretary of state for democracy and global affairs, and James L. Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

"Our agenda is to assure two outcomes," Connaughton said in a telephone interview last week before leaving for Poland. "One is a practical and comprehensive negotiating agenda and, as important, the establishment of an agenda of cooperative action, with the view of giving the next administration maximum flexibility."

The delegation's chief negotiator, Harlan L. Watson, told reporters last Monday that there are few differences between Bush and Obama in their approach to the talks, saying that Obama "has been relatively silent on the international aspects, with the logic being that the United States has to reach consensus domestically before we can bring that forward internationally."

One of the biggest obstacles facing negotiators has been the gulf between the United States and the European Union on the extent to which industrialized countries must reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to avert dangerous warming, and Obama's arrival goes only partway toward closing that divide. The European Union backs a goal of cutting emissions by 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020; Obama has called for the United States simply to get back to 1990 levels; and Bush promised only to halt the rise of emissions by 2020, which could leave the United States nearly 30 percent above 1990 levels.

During Bush's two terms, U.S. emissions have risen 4.7 percent and stand 16.7 percent above the benchmark 1990 levels, according to a new report by the Energy Information Administration (EIA). To meet the E.U. climate goal, the United States would have to cut emissions by more than 45 percent over the next dozen years, data from EIA and the International Energy Agency show.

The European Union has not contained its emissions growth either: The 15 E.U. states that have committed to cut greenhouse gases 8 percent by 2012 compared with 1990 increased their total emissions 0.8 percent from 2000 to 2006, according to U.N. data.

Polish Minister of Environment Maciej Nowicki, who is presiding over the Poznan talks, wrote in an e-mail, "Without the participation of the United States, we cannot speak about the common responsibility -- especially as seen from the perspective of the developing countries."

Hanne Inger Bjurstrom, Norway's chief negotiator, said Obama's promise of a return to 1990 levels over the next 12 years "is not sufficient." Obama's speech to the governors, he said, was "good information, but also what the world needs to see is a clear commitment from the U.S. I know it's difficult. I know you need to do things nationally first, and that's difficult."

Democrats will enjoy bigger majorities in Congress next year, which will make it easier for Obama to push through a domestic carbon cap, and he has indicated that he will be briefed on the Poznan outcome by the congressional delegation, which includes Democratic Sens. John F. Kerry (Mass.) and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.).

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who heads a select House committee on climate change, said he is confident the new president will be able to sign a bill by 2010, if not earlier.

"The math has changed dramatically since the last time people calculated the chances of success" in Congress, Markey said.

Klobuchar said in an interview that she and Kerry will tell foreign leaders that "something can and will happen out of this Congress with this new president" and that key congressional players on climate change are prepared to engage in horse trading to get a bill passed.

"The administration's enormous commitment to put resources into technology, that's going to be key to get people on board," she said, noting that wind energy has spurred economic development in her state.

Even as industrialized countries seek to ease the transition to a low-carbon society by investing in green technology, developing countries at the Poznan talks will demand aid to make the switch themselves. China, India and Brazil -- which are not bound to specific climate targets under the Kyoto Protocol -- say they will commit to binding actions only when richer countries identify their future emissions cuts and what money they will give developing nations to acquire new energy technology and adapt to global warming.

Yvo de Boer, executive secretary for the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, which hosts the talks, said in an interview that when it comes to putting together "the financial and institutional infrastructure" to put developing nations on a greener path, "we're still a ways from making that happen. At the moment people are just telling developing countries what to do without outlining what will help make that happen."

Timothy Wirth, president of the U.N. Foundation, said it's "probably asking too much" to expect a binding agreement by the end of 2009, but delegates may leave Copenhagen with the "building blocks" in place for a pact, along with "an overall agreement in principle" on how to address climate change. "That's all doable," he said.

And, de Boer emphasized, "The U.S. can be part of an agreement in Copenhagen without having domestic legislation written yet."

Norway's Bjurstrom, who does not have "big expectations" for Poznan, said she hopes the talks will at least keep up the political pressure for a deal in Copenhagen.

"I realize maybe Copenhagen is a bit early for the U.S.," she said, adding that if a final agreement was postponed until 2010, "the most important thing" would be to ensure that there was no gap between the expiration of the Kyoto Protocol in 2012 and the next agreement taking effect. "That should suffice, in a sense."

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