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Copenhagen, “ClimateGate,” and Commitment

The road to Copenhagen has been filled with potholes.

Feelings seem to be mixed as to whether we can hope for a politically-binding agreement at Copenhagen. At a meeting in Barcelona in early November, developing countries expressed frustration at developed countries’ hesitancy to commit to emissions reductions.  In Mid-November, at a hastily convened meeting with international leaders in Singapore, U.S. President Obama recognized that a full international agreement on emissions targets, financing and technology transfer is unrealistic for Copenhagen, citing that negotiations – primarily between the developing and developed world – have not advanced far enough prior to this event.

In the midst of all this, emails pulled from the server of the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at England’s University of East Anglia – dubbed “Climategate” – may reveal some dissent among key climate researchers about what really is going on with global warming anyway.

Despite skepticism, however, hope springs eternal that we can reach some politically-binding framework to reduce emissions and achieve some form of “climate justice”.  The U.S. has shown some commitment to climate change mitigation, as noted in Obama’s recent speech to the UN, and he has confirmed that he will arrive in Copenhagen on December 9th, which has prompted other major leaders to commit to the meeting as well.

The White House has said that Obama will pledge to reduce carbon emissions to 17% of 2005 levels, with an eye to reducing such emissions by up to 83% by 2050. A day after that announcement, China has put numbers on the table of a reduction in “carbon intensity” by 40-45% of 2005 levels by 2020. Since the U.S. and China together account for 40% of carbon emissions, this is no small feat – yet the IPCC holds that developed nations need to reduce emissions to 25-40% below 1990 levels, and China and U.S. commitments are still well below that.  The EU is leading the way in the push for reduced carbon emissions; they’ve pledged a collective reduction by 20% of 1990 levels by 2020, by which time they estimate that 20% of EU energy will come from renewable resources.

Some Copenhagen attendees seem confident that, at minimum, a schedule can be agreed upon to reduce carbon emissions. The German Chancellor has called for a political commitment that would produce a binding agreement on emissions in 2010, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has said that an agreement “is within reach.” Key questions still unanswered, however, include “which developed countries and industries in the West will pay, and how much they’ll pay, to help finance a clean-energy revolution in the developing world” (WSJ).

U.S. commitment?

The U.S. Senate is busy creating a bipartisan climate change bill that would define the way forward for the U.S. via one of several regulatory and legislative options on climate change – cap and trade or emissions taxes are two of them.  This bill would build on the cap-and-trade bill that was passed by the U.S. House in June, and would hopefully lead to a unified way forward.  It is unclear whether this bill will be released before the end of the year, and almost certainly not before Copenhagen.  Unfortunately it seems unlikely that the U.S. would be able to commit to significant climate change initiatives on an international scale when they haven’t yet figured it out domestically.

Why is the U.S. taking so long?

Debates surround what the cost of a 17% reduction in carbon emissions would mean to the American consumer – and the numbers depend on who’s doing the counting.  Carol Browner, Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change, has pointed to a summer study by the Congressional Budget Office on the House climate bill (known as the Waxman-Markey bill), which says that a family of four would pay $173 a year in more expensive energy. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said that emissions cuts might cost the average household between $80 and $111– but this would include controversial expansion of nuclear energy. Other independent studies, mostly by businesses and energy companies, have claimed that households would have to pay between $900 to $1,539.

As usual, the devil is in the details, and the real price of such carbon emissions would depend on how the goal is achieved.  John Reilly of MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, for example, has said that electric bills could go up by 50%, but the cap-and-trade bill might end up reimbursing consumers (the cap-and-trade system “auctions” the right to pollute, and those proceeds would be returned to consumers).  On the other hand, a Heritage Foundation study claimed that as provisions in the bill kick in down the road – the bill is planned such that some provisions are initiated gradually – this number could reach $6,800 per family by 2035.

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