U.S. Has Dual Task On Climate Change
To Sway Both Congress, Other Nations To Approve Cuts in Greenhouse Gases

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 20, 2009

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's decision to make her first overseas trip to China, where she arrives today, highlights the daunting tasks the new administration faces as the world scrambles to forge a new climate-change treaty this year: trying to persuade emerging economies to make deep cuts in greenhouse-gas releases that they have long resisted while coaxing Congress to adopt first-ever limits on the United States' own emissions.

These two challenges, which are key to securing a deal when climate negotiators convene December in Copenhagen, mean that President Obama and his deputies must launch a major push abroad and at home on an issue that President George W. Bush only reluctantly addressed. Bush ultimately launched a regular meeting of the world's biggest greenhouse-gas emitters -- an initiative Obama hopes to sustain -- but Bush's unwillingness to commit to binding domestic emissions cuts effectively stalled international efforts to curb global warming.

The new administration's campaign is on display this week as Clinton travels to Asia and President Obama journeys to Canada.

"This is an opportunity waiting to be seized," said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who held a hearing last month titled "The Road to Copenhagen" and had privately urged Clinton to make her first overseas trip to China to discuss global warming.

Several foreign officials have praised the new administration for its outreach. Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, met with administration officials involved in climate-change issues during a trip to Washington last week and noted, "They are very much engaged already."

"This is the year to finalize an agreement," he said. "Everybody is working on that direction, also here. That is the sentiment and the determination they have."

The new U.S. climate envoy, Todd Stern, is traveling with Clinton throughout Asia, and he has met privately with his British counterparts and others.

Many developing nations, however, say they are waiting to see whether the United States adopts a binding carbon cap and what emissions cuts it will seek from major emerging economies.

"The question is: How will the U.S. engage?" said Marthinus van Schalkwyk, South Africa's minister of environmental affairs and tourism, in a recent interview. "To enable us to move forward, the U.S. must show its hand."

Obama has pledged to cut U.S. emissions back to 1990 levels by 2020 and to 80 percent below that level by 2050. But European and developing nations have called for industrialized nations to cut emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and they are waiting to see whether the United States will enact a climate bill with ambitious targets by the time negotiators meet to work out a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, the pioneering pact that the United States rejected.

A State Department official familiar with the issue, who requested anonymity under rules set by the department, said top Obama officials recognize the challenge they face.

"We are committed to getting a deal done in Copenhagen, and it obviously has to be a deal that the United States can join in," the official said. "The domestic legislation is going to be enormously important in telling us how far we're going to be able to go."

Adopting climate targets that will satisfy other countries entails persuading Democrats and Republicans from the nation's mid-section -- where fossil fuels, manufacturing and automobiles are pivotal to the economy -- to approve legislation that will drive up energy prices, at least in the short term. Many Republicans oppose any mandatory carbon cap, so the administration will have to expend significant political capital to win the necessary votes.

"I don't think our political system can handle it. You just have too many senators in the middle," said Bill Kovacs, who heads the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's energy and environment division.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee's top Republican, Joe L. Barton (Tex.), said in an interview that although he and other Republicans can support funding renewable energy and modernizing the nation's electricity grid, they see dozens of moderate Democrats as potential allies in blocking mandatory limits on greenhouse gases. "This is not a good year to be moving that kind of bill, because of the economy," Barton said.

One of the central questions negotiators must tackle is how major emerging economies interpret their "common but differentiated responsibilities" under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, the 1992 agreement that governs the ongoing global warming talks. That is one of the reasons Clinton is reaching out to China so quickly.

Together, the United States and China account for about 40 percent of all greenhouse-gas emissions: China generates 80 percent of its electricity from coal and has just passed America as the world's biggest single emitter.

Kovacs said it was unrealistic to ask Americans to make sacrifices when developing countries' emissions are rising so fast. "If you were to eliminate the entire United States, CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere for the next century would still increase," he said.

Kenneth Lieberthal, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution who co-authored a report this month about possible U.S.-China cooperation on climate change, said that forging a closer working relationship is critical. Collaborating on developing electric vehicles, a cooperative research agenda and carbon sequestration projects, he said, could allow the countries to pursue carbon reductions together.

"The U.S.-China side of this is important for each of us domestically, it's important to what we can do cooperatively, and it could be significant for what we could accomplish in the global talks," Lieberthal added.

Barbara Finamore, China program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said advocacy groups such as hers are looking for more concrete agreements to help China pursue economic growth without harming the environment. She noted the province of Jiangsu, working with the state of California, determined it could eliminate the need for the equivalent of 26 coal-fired power plants over the next two years at no net cost if it replaced aging industrial motors in its factories and adopted other efficiency measures.

A key question is whether the United States and other wealthy nations are willing to help finance this low-carbon transition for developing nations. Achim Steiner, executive director of the U.N. Environment Program, said China and India are asking, "Are you willing to help share that cost so we can go to a cleaner future?"

The United States must also engage in discussions with some of its closest allies. Under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Canada has fallen behind on its Kyoto commitments and is backing a plan to cut its total emissions to 3 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.

After his meeting with Harper yesterday, Obama said he hopes a "dialogue" on science and technology will ease the transition to cleaner fuels. "And through this example and through continued international negotiations, the United States and Canada are committed to confronting the threat posed by climate change," he said.

One State Department official said the administration has reason to be optimistic that international leaders will embrace U.S. efforts to forge a climate deal this year.

"They're really waiting and hoping and looking for us to do good things, to resume a leadership role and deliver," he said.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company