Republican Victory Dims Prospects for Climate Action at Federal Level in US

11 November 2010

The Democratic Party's big losses in last week's congressional vote in the US have all but snuffed out prospects for meaningful nation-wide legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions over the next two years.

Most Republicans have fiercely opposed past climate change initiatives by Congressional Democrats and President Barack Obama's administration. With the balance of power in the House of Representatives shifting decisively to the Republicans as of January, legislation would need considerable support from both parties to pass.

The election comes as countries gear up for a UN climate summit in Cancun, Mexico at the end of the month. But with most countries insisting that a clear commitment from the US government about tackling greenhouse gas emissions is crucial to reaching a global climate pact, hopes for such a deal have been scuppered for now.

US benchmark on climate remains key

"The election in the US was a setback for everyone who would like to see an ambitious climate-change agreement and a nationwide cap-and-trade system in the United States," Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, who co-chairs a high-level UN climate financing group, told Reuters in an interview last Friday. "On the other hand we cannot give up our efforts to try to reach an agreement on how to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases."

Equivalent to some 5.8 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide, the US's carbon emissions account for a hair below twenty percent of the world total, with per capita emissions well above the global average. The country's ability to slash emissions is central to the effectiveness of global efforts to try to arrest climate change. Climate impacts resulting from the increase in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations are already impacting livelihoods around the world, particularly in the poorest countries.

After their experience with the Kyoto Protocol, which the US signed but failed to ratify in Congress, US climate negotiators insist that they will not agree to anything that lawmakers will not approve. Climate officials from other countries had hoped for the passage of a US law that would set the framework for the emissions reduction commitments it could make as part of an international agreement. Underlining the extent to which the climate talks are as much about economics as about the environment, many countries have been waiting to see the US position on climate change before clarifying their own emissions reduction efforts, fearing diminished industrial competitiveness or simply having to make a greater effort than the world's largest economy.

Obama to focus on "bite sized" approach to climate

Although the House passed legislation for a national cap-and-trade scheme last year, the Senate has not done so. Earlier this year, Republican opposition, and the loss of their filibuster-proof majority following the death of Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, forced Senate Democrats to put cap-and-trade on hold indefinitely. With last week's election loss, the US administration is now grasping for a new approach.

"Cap-and-trade was just one way of skinning the cat. It was a means, not an end," Obama said at a White House news conference following the election. "I'm going to be looking for other means to address this problem."

In a recent interview with the National Journal, the president indicated that these means may have to be a "bite-sized" approach to energy policy. These may not cut emissions on the scale necessary, yet could be the only way to move the country forward politically. Economic growth is at the top of the US agenda, and trumps, in many cases, proposals for carbon reduction.

Obama says he will be focus on initiatives that are good for the economy and promise to reduce the US's dependency on fossil fuels.

Low expectations for Cancun

Unlike last year's gathering of parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen, there is no expectation that the upcoming meeting in Cancun will result in consensus on a legally binding deal. Yet one critical question countries will have to agree on is what to do once the initial phase of the Kyoto Protocol ends in 2012, since there is no agreement on a next phase or on a new, broader deal.

Many, including key emitters such as China, believe the global deal will have to wait until next year's climate summit South Africa.  But with the Obama administration hamstrung on the issue at least until the next elections in 2012, that meeting may run into many of the same of the same obstacles.

Still, some feel that Washington's commitments to the non-binding Copenhagen Accord reached last December have begun some positive momentum in the US in terms of emission reduction.

"It's discouraging, but at the same time we're taking a five or 10 year view," British economist and climate change expert Nicholas Stern said following the election. "The US has indicated its position in the Copenhagen Accord, and I see no reason why it will backtrack from the accord."

Some cause for optimism

Although the election results mean that prospects for national-level cap-and-trade legislation are virtually nil, they do not rule out action to curb emissions at the state and regional levels.

Voters in California came out strongly in favour of state-level efforts to cut emissions, rejecting Proposition 23, a ballot initiative that would have effectively suspended the implementation of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's aggressive Global Warming Solutions Act - also known as AB 32 -  which aims to reduce the state's emissions levels to 1990 levels by 2020.

Accompanying state-level policies such as AB 32 are some regional cooperation initiatives aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. These include the Western Climate Initiative, which aspires to introducing a cap-and-trade scheme across several US states and Canadian provinces, as well as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) - a cap-and-trade program covering electricity generation in 10 northeastern and mid-Atlantic states. These efforts suggest that there may be opportunities for the US to reduce overall carbon emissions even in absence of a national regime.

Another source of potential carbon constraints in the US comes from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which is set next year to regulate greenhouse gases, following a Supreme Court ruling that it could treat the heat-trapping gases as pollutants. However, some influential Republicans have vowed to oppose any such efforts.

One potential driver of climate policy action in the US has nothing to do with the environment: the country's budget deficit. If it proves difficult for lawmakers to bring spending in line with revenue, a carbon tax may cease to be politically untouchable.

ICTSD reporting; "Obama Moves Away From `Cap and Trade,' Seeks New Tools," REUTERS, 4 November 2010; "Obama's climate pessimism dims U.N., G20 outlook," REUTERS 4 November, 2010; "Clinton Facing Heat on Oil Sands Pipeline," THE NEW YORK TIMES, 1 November 2010; "Defeat Of Prop. 23 Preserves California's Climate-Change Law," SOLAR INDUSTRY, 4 November 2010; "U.S. vote was "setback" for climate action: Norway," REUTERS, 5 November 2010; "Republican wants to keep global warming committee," ASSOCIATED PRESS, 8 November 2010; "A Carbon Tax Emerges Among the Ideas to Reduce the Federal Deficit," NEW YORK TIMES/CLIMATEWIRE, 9 November 2010.

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