Obama’s Climate Pessimism

In Americas, Governments & Politics, News Headlines

U.S. President Barack Obama’s pessimism about passing U.S. climate legislation also dims chances for action to slow global warming both in U.N. talks and in other groups such as the G20, experts say.

A lack of U.S. legislation to cut greenhouse gas emissions may also hit plans to raise a promised $100 billion a year by 2020 to help poor nations cope with climate change. That plan partly hinges on curbs on emissions to push up carbon prices.

Obama conceded on Wednesday that big Republican gains in Tuesday’s elections undermined prospects for comprehensive climate legislation. He held out hopes that his Democrats could find common ground on energy policies for a cleaner environment.

“The U.S. elections confirm what many people already suspected: the next U.N. meeting in Cancun won’t be a breakthrough on emission reductions,” said Richard Klein, of the Stockholm Environment Institute.

The talks in Cancun, Mexico, on November 29-December 10, will seek progress after the U.N. summit in December 2009 fell short of a U.N. treaty. About 30 environment ministers are holding preparatory talks in Mexico this week.

Near-deadlock in the 194-nation U.N. talks has shifted focus to smaller groups, such as the Group of 20 or the U.S.-led Major Economies Forum (MEF), as possible avenues to agree climate action. But that too looks unlikely.

“The problem is more diplomatic or strategic — if you have a smaller club the United States sticks out more as doing less,” said Susanne Droege, head of research in global issues at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

“So from a strategic point of view (emissions cuts) are not an issue for other nations to push” in the G20 or MEF, she said. Both the G20 and MEF include major emitters led by China, the United States, the European Union and Russia.

Washington could still play a big role in Cancun even if it cannot legislate cuts, perhaps with more cash to help developing countries protect tropical forests or to help the poor adapt to more heatwaves, floods, droughts or rising seas, she said.

Gordon Shepherd, leader of the WWF conservation group’s global climate initiative, said clarity that the United States will not legislate cuts might force other nations to be clearer about their plans after sitting on the fence waiting for Washington.


“It’s not like the train has smacked into the end of the railway track in the station. There’s lots of track left and let’s keep this moving,” he said.

Obama’s election in 2008 and his talk of saving a “planet in peril” briefly brought optimism for many countries at talks on a new U.N. treaty to slow rising emissions.

Obama said at the Copenhagen summit that he wanted to cut U.S. emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, a cut passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and equivalent to 3-4 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.

The Senate did not pass the cut.

A group of U.N. advisers will hand a report to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Friday outlining ways to raise $100 billion in climate aid to help developing nations cut their emissions and adapt to the impacts of warming.

But the goal, promised in a Copenhagen Accord, relies heavily on setting a price on carbon dioxide emissions — about 14.57 euros per tonne ($20.60) in a European Union market.

A draft seen by Reuters assumes a “medium” price for carbon of $25 a tonne by 2020 but such a global price would probably not emerge without wider curbs on emissions.

“The stronger the objectives (for cuts), the higher the carbon price and the more money will be available,” Klein said.

(Additional reporting by Gerard Wynn in London)

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