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.
Without 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.
No 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.