Critique of U.S. Action on Climate Expected at Summits

The Post's national environment reporter David Fahrenthold says G-8 leaders will press President Obama to do more to fight global warming, despite a recent landmark climate change bill that passed in the House. Audio by Emily Kotecki/The Washington Post
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 7, 2009; 8:07 PM

At a pair of international summits dealing with climate change this week, President Obama will be able to point to something no previous president has: a House-approved bill that could cap U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

But he will still hear the same criticism lobbed at his predecessors -- that America is not doing enough.

In L'Aquila, Italy, where the Group of Eight world powers and a wider circle of 17 heavy-polluting nations plan to meet, environmental groups and European countries are likely to call the U.S. legislation insufficient.

The House bill calls for a 17 percent reduction in U.S. emissions from 2005 levels by 2020. These critics want cuts of 20 percent or more, and they want to use the more demanding baseline of 1990.

"The science, in our view, certainly demands more" than the U.S. bill, said Malachy Hargadon, counselor on the environment to the European Commission's delegation in Washington.

Such reaction is one symptom of a growing concern: Six months before a key global meeting, there are still wide disagreements among the players needed to tackle climate change.

European countries "have set a very high bar and are coming to realize the U.S. is not going to meet it," said Elliot Diringer, a vice president at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. But he said that if they want the United States in an agreement, "they'll have to find a way to accommodate the level of effort the U.S. brings to the table."

The meetings begin Wednesday with the three-day G-8 summit, at which leaders are expected to discuss climate change along with the global economy, financial regulation and security issues. It will mark an important first: Obama's debut in climate talks with world leaders following a president many blamed for environmental inaction.

That summit will overlap with a one-day meeting of the Major Economies Forum, a climate-focused group whose members include China, India, the United States and Brazil and account for about 80 percent of the world's emissions.

In this group, finding common ground is still difficult -- even when the members are talking about goals four decades away.

European leaders want major emitters to set a goal of cutting global emissions 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. An Obama administration official said the United States supports a cut that size, but it was unclear whether the administration would seek a baseline year of 1990 or 2005. Developing countries such as India and China were said by outside observers to balk at both.

The near future is even more of a problem.

European Union countries have pledged to cut their emissions 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. The U.S. House bill uses as a baseline 2005, which is a more lenient standard because emissions had grown by then.

The House bill calls for using a "cap-and-trade" system in which factories, oil refineries, power plants and other polluters would be required to amass buyable, sellable credits for all they emit.

Most European leaders have greeted this news with praise for the bill's historic nature, if not for its exact details. "President Obama has changed the game on climate change," said a spokesman for the British agency overseeing the response to climate change.

But some environmental groups said they had expected far more.

"We are really disappointed, because we had great hopes for the Obama administration," said Sonja Meister, a spokesman for Brussels-based Friends of the Earth Europe. "It's great that they're back" in serious climate talks, Meister said, but U.S. efforts "don't really look much different than the [actions] of the Bush administration."

The Obama administration is not likely to promise major changes in short-term goals. An administration official cited comments U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern made in May: "We are jumping as high as the political system will tolerate," he said.

This kind of fundamental division over short-term goals -- and another one, with developing countries such as India and China demanding that developed nations shoulder the heaviest burdens of cutting emissions -- bogged down international climate talks in Bonn, Germany, in June.

If negotiations are stymied in Italy, environmentalists say, there will be even greater worries about major talks scheduled for December. In Copenhagen that month, world leaders are supposed to come up with a successor treaty to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, describing how the world would work together to fight climate change.

For now, U.S. officials are setting expectations for this week low. "The goal itself is really to show forward momentum from what there has been," the Obama administration official said. "There's no specifics."

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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