The US Freezes on Climate Change

The stalled US climate change debate has killed the hope of reaching a final agreement at the Copenhagen summit

The prospects for an international agreement to tackle the causes of climate change
are looking slim. They got even slimmer earlier this week, after the
leading US senators crafting a climate bill announced that they're pushing back the release of their legislation indefinitely. While Barbara Boxer and John Kerry say the bill "is moving along well" and promise it will be ready for release "later in September", the delay makes the chances of passing it before the looming international negotiations in Copenhagen even less likely.

concrete action in the Senate, there will not be an actual deal ready
to sign in Copenhagen. With no Senate action, there's no guarantee that
the US will commit to binding targets. And with no US targets, there
will be no firm agreement from China, India or other emerging powers.
Ratification of an international treaty requires the consent of 67
senators - and right now, just getting to 60 just to vote on the
climate bill is looking difficult.

With a realistic time frame,
this delay means they won't release a bill until the end of September.
Boxer, who chairs the Senate's environment and public works committee,
has said she plans to hold hearings on the draft text, followed by
markup of the full legislation. Her committee is not the only one
likely to play a major role in the bill.

The finance committee,
chaired by Max Baucus, is expected to author the pollution permit
allocation portion of the bill, but is also at the centre of the debate
over healthcare reform. They've only held one meeting on climate
legislation this year, which Baucus could not attend due to commitments
on healthcare. At least four other committees may want to weigh in.

one expects the Senate to even move to climate until the healthcare
issue is resolved - which, realistically, is probably going to drag out
until the end of November.

So it's not much of a surprise that Helen Clark, the UN development chief, is now downplaying the likelihood
that Copenhagen will be the final step in negotiating a successor to
the Kyoto Protocol. "Copenhagen has to be viewed as a very important
step," said Clark. "Would it be overoptimistic to say that it would be
the final one? Of course."

"If there's no deal as such, it
won't be a failure," she continued. "I think the conference will be
positive but it won't dot every i and cross every t."

Clark, a
former prime minister of New Zealand, is one of the first UN officials
to state upfront what many observers have come to accept: that there's
very little chance that there will be a new, binding treaty in place by
the end of the year. While progress has been made in 2009, and will
likely continue in the meetings leading up to December, it's highly
unlikely that the US and other key players will be able to formalise
their own plans this year.

That's not to say there can't be
progress over the next months. The G20 will meet in Pittsburgh at the
end of September, where climate will be among the top issues. The
summit should yield more slow, steady progress toward consensus.

There's already been a good deal of development in the past meetings of world leaders. In early July, the G8 leaders agreed that they should limit warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius
- a goal that 124 countries have agreed to, and which is endorsed in
the House climate bill. Yvo de Boer, the executive secretary of the UN
framework convention on climate change, has said he believes that he believes a 2-degree commitment is possible in Copenhagen.

Much really depends on how much the US negotiators can work out in the next months without any Senate movement. The US and China signed an agreement
on greater cooperation between the countries, which includes investment
in clean-energy technologies. The two nations have also made progress
on agreeing to reduce emissions from automobiles, one major source of
planet-warming gases. If the US and China can continue to progress on
bilateral agreements, there may yet be hope for Copenhagen marking a
major advance toward a final deal.

Now that world leaders are
starting to acknowledge that there is little hope for a final deal in
December, the priority should be deciding what can be done in
Copenhagen. A clearer picture of what success there would look like,
from the US, UN and other world leaders, should now be the top
priority, as well as an alternative timeline for action.

It won't be a failure if there's no deal in Copenhagen, but it will be hard to gauge success with no new expectations.

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