EXPECTATIONS for the Copenhagen climate conference, to be held next month in the Danish capital, rise and fall. On November 15th, as Barack Obama toured Asia, he and the Danish prime minister, Lars Lokke Rasmussen, agreed that no agreement on a new treaty would be reached at the conference. Instead, they said that the best that can now be expected is a “political” deal out of the Copenhagen meeting, which begins on December 7th.
The negotiations leading up to Copenhagen have been something of a fiasco. But this is not, as some would have it, wholly the fault of balky American senators who have refused to pass a cap-and-trade bill fast enough. It is true that a lot of the blame does indeed belong on Capitol Hill; the Senate has taken its time mulling over its version of a climate-change bill, not helped by the protracted debate over health care. John Kerry, one of the Senate’s cap-and-trade champions, now says only that he hopes the bill will make it to the floor in the spring.
But this is far from the only reason that a full, binding deal at Copenhagen had to be scratched. Each round of successive negotiations leading up to the conference lengthened, rather than shortened, the list of matters up for debate. The negotiating text is a snarl of bracketed material that the parties cannot agree on. There is now no hope of getting legally binding targets for emissions-reductions—a “son of Kyoto” treaty that would extend plans to cut greenhouse-gas emissions when the targets laid out in the Kyoto protocol end in 2012.
Big developing countries have been as immovable as America, at least publicly. China’s president said in September that his country would cut the amount of carbon dioxide it emits per unit of output by a “notable amount”, but has provided no actual figure. India, another big poor-country emitter, has steadfastly pushed back against any binding targets for poor countries at all. Many in Washington, DC, continue to believe what they did at Kyoto: no deal is acceptable in America that requires nothing concrete of the big poor-world emitters. China, after all, puts out more carbon dioxide than America does.
Yet a number of climate-watchers in Washington breathed a sigh of relief when Mr Obama and Mr Rasmussen said what everyone involved had long known. Not only will Mr Obama now not sign a bill before Copenhagen; the Senate is not even expected to vote on one. But at least that means that the several committees that get a crack at the bill will be allowed to get on with their work.
Climate change was at the top of the agenda when Mr Obama arrived in China late on November 15th. A few Copenhagen-watchers still held out hope that Mr Obama and Hu Jintao, China’s president, would announce something that could break the deadlock. Instead, they announced a raft of practical measures on energy—both its production and its use. Some were more aspirational than operational. But they may show the way forward, by focusing on concrete measures to be taken today rather than distant goals.
The measures announced include the creation of a Sino-American clean-energy research centre and an electric-vehicles initiative. They also include a plan to increase energy efficiency, especially in buildings. This was a big part of America’s stimulus bill, and an Energy Department official says that China will add housing and office space equivalent to America’s entire stock in the next 20 years.
Another promise, to work together on “cleaner coal”—meaning capturing and storing the carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants—is important as both countries sit on mountains of the stuff. Finally, the two agreed to co-operate on extracting natural gas from shale. America has much more extractable gas in shale than previously thought, and the same geology pertains around the world. Gas power emits just half the carbon dioxide of coal.
Back in Washington, such talk may help a cap-and-trade bill’s chances. Boosters now talk more about energy production (from natural gas or solar), and cost-saving (like keeping buildings just as warm with less energy) than about hair-shirt measures like turning out the lights. Lindsey Graham, a Republican, has joined forces with Mr Kerry, saying he will support a cap-and-trade bill if it includes production of more low-carbon energy from nuclear power, as well as offshore oil-and-gas drilling in America. On the Senate bill, E&E Daily, an energy and environmental news website, counts 27 of 100 senators “on the fence”, along with 41 “yes” and “probably yes”. That fence-sitting group has grown, though 60 votes are still needed to ensure passage of a bill. Some talk of abandoning the idea of a cap-and-trade system that covers the whole economy in favour of one that covers power companies (which are reconciled to the idea) plus tighter fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles.
The interplay between international negotiations and the Senate’s deliberations is delicate. Senators are unwilling to vote for caps in America without a commitment from China, China is unwilling to make one without an ambitious target for cuts from America, and the administration is unwilling to antagonise the Senate by seeming to cave in to foreign pressure. But there are ways round the impasse. America may offer up numerical targets based on the legislation that it hopes will pass next year, and China might put a number on the “notable” cuts in the energy intensity of GDP it has promised. That could be the basis for an outline deal at Copenhagen—details to be filled in next year.
Source - www.economist.com