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03 Nov 2009: U.S. Comes Under Pressure
in Final Session Before Copenhagen Summit

With just a month remaining before the Copenhagen climate summit, delegates from 192 countries are meeting this week in Barcelona to attempt to lay the groundwork for a climate treaty, with some influential figures saying the United States must be prepared to make firm greenhouse gas reduction commitments if Copenhagen is to be a success.

Connie Hedegaard, the Danish minister for climate and energy, who is hosting the Copenhagen meeting, expressed the hopes and frustrations of European Union members when she told delegates, “We have gotten used to the fact in World War I, World War II, the Cold War, the fight against terror, that the world could count on the U.S. to deliver on huge challenges,” she said. “I believe they have to deliver on this challenge. And if we don’t reach agreement in Copenhagen, who will lose the most? One of the most defined losers is American business.”

The Obama administration has declined to commit to a firm target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by a certain date, saying they cannot make a commitment until Congress — which is now considering major climate legislation — passes a bill. That stance does not sit well with many in Europe, who say that unless the U.S. plays a major role in Copenhagen a treaty is unlikely to be signed.

Andreas Carlgren, the environment minister in Sweden who represented the European Union at a news conference on Monday, noted that the EU has committed to reducing emissions 30 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and 85 to 95 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. Last week, the EU formally calculated that it would cost $110 billion Euros ($150 billion) annually to help the developing world achieve reductions of similar magnitude and make the transition to a clean energy economy. The EU estimated that 22 billion to 50 billion Euros of this amount would come from public funds, and let it be known that its share would be 3 to 22 billion Euros.

The obvious implication of Carlgren’s message was, where is the United States?

“The EU is more than ever fully prepared to reach a deal,” said Carlgren, who then quoted a famous line from an American movie on the Apollo space program. “Failure is not an option.”

Yvo de Boer — who is overseeing the negotiations as executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change — also seemed to wag a finger.

“There is quite some ground to cover,” he said. “Adaptation, technology, mitigation, finance. We must deliver substantial reductions. We cannot wait any longer. Do any of you believe it will be easier next year or the year after? You know it is not going to get any easier... Copenhagen must open the door to the common good and close the door to human disaster. Barcelona is essential to putting the architecture in place.”

Many observers have recently been pessimistic that a climate treaty can be signed in Copenhagen, but some delegates in Barcelona said there is still time to set the stage for success in Copenhagen.

“This is the moment of truth when the world decides whether it is committed to solving climate change or just playing theater,” said Kim Carstensen, leader of the World Wildlife Fund’s Global Climate Initiative. “We’ve been dismayed by statements that there is too little time left. We insist that we have the time to develop a binding outcome, to achieve emissions reductions, to show action on developing countries, finance, and institutions. We have the public will.”

At a news conference, Jonathan Pershing — the U.S. deputy special envoy for climate change — pushed back against criticism of the United States. He said “development of a domestic number [on U.S. emissions targets] is under way and we are actively working with the Congress.” Pershing cautioned against deciding “how blame is apportioned. That is not a constructive thing. We think we can get there. The constructive thing is to push forward on an agreement.”

A carbon cap-and-trade bill that would limit greenhouse gas emissions and place a price on carbon has been passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and a similar bill is now being debated by the Senate. Both bills commit to smaller greenhouse gas reductions than the EU.

“All countries are making their own choices about how they do their negotiation,” Pershing said.

— Keith Schneider

Keith Schneider, director of media and communications for the U.S. Climate Action Network, is reporting from the Barcelona talks for Yale Environment 360.

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