Climate Change and the UN: Nice Words

Leaders offer little of substance at the latest climate change gathering in New York.

Just over 70 days to go and there is miserably little progress yet. The outlook for the global summit on climate change to be held in Copenhagen in December is uncertain. The current version of the draft outcome document for the meeting is hundreds of pages long, with thousands of passages in brackets representing points of disagreement. Climate-watchers are steadily lowering their expectations. They had hoped that activities this week in New York, scheduled around the UN General Assembly, might move things forward. So far there is little to cheer.

A speech by Barack Obama on Tuesday September 22nd was eagerly awaited. He acknowledged that America-which failed to ratify the Kyoto protocol, encouraging industrialised countries to cut emissions of greenhouse gases-has some catching up to do. He made clear the dangers of rapid climate change, urging the world to act “boldly, swiftly and together” to avert an “irreversible catastrophe”. But he offered little that was practical or specific, beyond noting that America would start measuring its greenhouse-gas emissions more exactly, to better assess what progress is being made. He struck an urgent tone but there was little punch to the speech. A spokesman for Oxfam, an aid agency, responded ruefully that someone had “switched the coffee to decaf at today’s UN climate summit”.

To some extent Mr. Obama was upstaged by China’s president, Hu Jintao, who at least offered some specific details of steps that his country is taking. He described how, in China’s five-year economic plan from 2006-2010, the country has set itself targets of energy intensity-the energy required to produce a unit of GDP. Mr. Hu says that China will go further in the coming years, by trying to cut the carbon emissions per dollar of GDP produced, for example by developing renewable and nuclear energy. “We will endeavour to increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 15% by 2020″, he said. He also touted plans to extend an existing reforestation programme: 18%, or 175m hectares, of Chinese land is forested today; the government wants to see another 40m hectares added by 2020. China is now the world’s biggest greenhouse-gas emitter, and its emissions are rising rapidly as its economy grows. Mr Hu wants to show the world that he is taking concerns about the climate seriously.

However the Chinese president did not offer hard targets on the main issue, carbon intensity, only promising a reduction by a “notable amount”. As long as China continues to add coal-fired power at an alarming rate, Mr. Hu’s promises will not satisfy those who worry that global carbon emissions are growing too quickly. Nor is his speech likely to be enough to convince sceptics in America’s Congress who want China to commit to hard targets before-or at least at the same time as-America does.

The cap-and-trade bill in Congress offers a target that many Europeans consider to be weak-a 17% reduction in emissions on 2005 levels by 2020. But even that is imperilled by almost total Republican opposition, and the nervousness of moderate Democrats in vulnerable electoral districts.

Whatever Mr. Obama’s personal commitment to doing something about climate change, he has a limited ability to enforce new policies. He has the power to do some things by executive decision, and has done so with efficiency standards on light bulbs and cars. And a 2007 court decision has ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency can directly regulate greenhouse-gas emissions which are considered an “endangerment”, a power that Mr. Obama has threatened to use. But all sides in America agree that legislation would be more comprehensive than an executive order.

But the slow progress of the bill through Congress has foreign partners running out of patience with the excuse that the health-care bill must come first, or that Congress really is complex. America must move at the same time as other economies, rich and poor alike, a dilemma Scott Barrett, an economist at Columbia University, calls the “biggest collective-action problem in human history”. The lack of pace of cap-and-trade in the Senate is an ominous sign.

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