Opinion: Still hope for Copenhagen summit

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — At a press conference in the Danish capital of Copenhagen last weekend, Graham Stuart, a British parliamentarian, sat as the moderator. To his left was Wang Guangtao, chairman of the Chinese congress’ environmental committee. On his right lay an empty seat and a miniature American flag.

“Funnily enough,” said Stuart, “in a climate negotiation, we appear to be waiting on America.”

The meeting in Copenhagen wasn’t a case of real deal-making. That’ll come in December, when negotiators meet in an attempt to craft a successor to the Kyoto protocol. But Graham’s quip reflected a greater truth. When it comes to the fight against climate change, the world is still waiting on the United States.

U.S. Congressman Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the man who eventually took the empty seat, has done as much as anybody in America to turn that around. This summer, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill he co-sponsored that committed the country to significant cuts in emissions.

“Historically, the United States and China have been the excuse for why other countries haven’t acted,” said Markey. “This year we want to be leaders, not laggards.”

But the effort hasn’t been enough. A Senate committee kicked off debate on its version of the bill just this week. If the legislation isn’t passed in the next month and a half — and it almost certainly won’t be — the global summit in Copenhagen is unlikely to produce an agreement.

When President Barack Obama took office in February, there had been a hope that he would have been presented with a climate bill to sign before the global summit in December. With legislation in hand, U.S. negotiators would have had a chance of convincing developing countries to commit to limiting their greenhouse gas emissions.

Instead, the climate talks seem set to fail for much the same reason the Kyoto Protocol did. Developing countries will insist that rich nations — by virtue of the wealth, per-capita emissions and historical responsibility — be responsible for fighting climate change.

The industrialized world will respond that it can’t do it alone. And the U.S. Senate will refuse to ratify a treaty that doesn’t require China and India to limit the growth of their emissions.

“Clearly, at the current pace, we will not make it within the next two months,” said Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen, who will be hosting the summit in December.

Markey and his Chinese counterpart were in Copenhagen as part of a gathering of legislators from 19 countries, meeting to discuss what could be done about climate change. While the conference wasn’t part of the official negotiations, it represented an opportunity for those
attending to express the views of the countries they represented.

For the Chinese, it was chance to stress not only the environmental commitments the country has made (Beijing recently instituted targets for renewable energy and energy efficiency), but also the limits imposed by the widespread poverty in their countryside.

“We are a developing country and our situation is one that is shared by all developing countries,” said Wang. “We’re working on reconciling economic development with energy consumption.”

The Americans too had an excuse — namely that until recently the U.S. government was committed to delaying the fight against climate change. “Let’s be honest,” Markey told the assembled legislators. “It’s taken some time, especially for certain leaders in the United States, to accept the science.”

Still, there is potential for a breakthrough. The primary point of agreement among the gathered lawmakers was that funding will be needed to help poor countries reduce emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change.

The proposed funds — which could exceed $100 billion per year — would provide the developing world both the means and motivation to sign up for cuts it might not otherwise agree to.

“If December comes and the developing countries don’t feel like there’s a pay off for them, then the whole Copenhagen problem will grind to a halt,” said Connie Hedegaard, Denmark's climate and energy minister.

Even so, world leaders have already started to move the goal posts. While launching a last minute push, they’ve acknowledged that the meeting in December is unlikely to result in a comprehensive agreement.

“Even if we can’t agree to every single legal detail in Copenhagen, it should not be an excuse for postponing activity,” said Rasmussen, the Danish prime minister. “I don’t want to spend words defining a failure, but I can use them to define success.”