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December 07, 2009

Treaty Conference on Climate Change Opens in Copenhagen
    by Robert Kropp

While prospects for signing of an international agreement seem delayed until next year, hopes for progress increase with rescheduling of Obama's participation and involvement of China and India. -- Hopes for substantial international agreement on climate change have certainly ebbed and flowed in the months leading up to today's opening of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP15) in Copenhagen. In the US alone, the optimism generated by June's passage of the Waxman-Markey bill has been tempered by the Senate's slow pace in considering its version of climate change legislation.

In her opening remarks, Connie Hedegaard, the COP15 conference president, said, "This is our chance. If we miss it, it could take years before we got a new and better one. If ever."

Fearing that many economic opportunities presented by a transition to a low-carbon economy could be lost if the Senate continues to delay taking action on climate change legislation, Business for Innovative Climate & Energy Policy (BICEP), along with seven major utility companies, has expressed "concerns about the potential delay in moving legislation forward in the Senate."

Mindy Lubber, president of Ceres, a coalition of investors that serves as the coordinator for BICEP, said, "The message from these respected businesses is clear: Put a price on carbon and get the rules right. The cost of policy inaction is too high."

While the Senate continues to deliberate, President Obama, whose grasp of the economic opportunities presented by climate change was demonstrated by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, changed the timing of his arrival in Copenhagen in order to maximize the impact of his participation.

As reported last week, President Obama had originally planned to attend the talks on December 9, instead of at the close of them, when many world leaders had committed to attend. But on December 4, the White House issued a statement that read in part, "the President believes that continued US leadership can be most productive through his participation at the end of the Copenhagen conference on December 18th rather than on December 9th."

Also intending to attend the talks in Copenhagen is Republican Senator James Inhofe, who has in the past derided climate science as a "hoax" and is leading Republican efforts to undermine meaningful climate change legislation. In a recent interview about his planned attendance, Inhofe said, "I wanted to make sure that countries were fully informed that we are not going to be passing legislation that will accomplish what President Obama I believe is going to tell."

One of the primary arguments used by opponents of Congressional climate change legislation has been that without meaningful commitments to emissions reduction targets by major developing nations such as China and India, the US would be left at an economic disadvantage. Opponents have continued to advance this argument despite numerous economic models that report the likelihood of increased net revenue from the deployment of low-carbon technologies.

Furthermore, the argument that major developing economies would be getting a free ride was undermined by China's recent announcement that it would decrease emissions by 40-45% below 2005 levels by 2020. And following China's announcement, India said that it would reduce its emissions by 20-25% below 2005 levels by 2020.

The two countries announced targets despite the fact that the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change does not at present require such targets from developing nations. And China has been emphatic in describing its targets as voluntary, while India has said, "There is simply no compromise on India's national interest."

Of course, the US targets that Obama will bring to Copenhagen cannot be described as a commitment either, until the Senate passes binding legislation.

Concerns over ensuring "a level playing field for US companies and workers" persist even among moderate Democrats who have not yet committed to supporting the Senate's version of climate change legislation. In a lette r submitted to Obama on December 3, ten Senate Democrats, led by Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, detailed ten principles for international cooperation on climate change, that, they said, "should direct US climate policy."

Addressing what they perceive to be potential economic inequities, the Senators wrote, "Any new US climate change laws should establish a national system of border adjustments," which would impose tariffs on imports from countries that fail to meet agreed-upon reduction targets.

Following passage of Waxman-Markey in June, Obama said, "At a time when the economy worldwide is still deep in recession and we’ve seen a significant drop in global trade, I think we have to be very careful about sending any protectionist signals out there."

But despite the letter's hints of trade protectionism, it does seem to provide a framework for agreement between the Senators—five of whom were identified as "fence-sitters" in a projectionby Environment and Energy Daily—and the Administration in crafting effective climate change legislation. With the likelihood that any binding international agreement will not occur until next year, perhaps the Senate will have time to wrap up its deliberations and pass legislation in advance of a global treaty, after all.

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