Rhein on Energy and Climate

It appears almost certain that the US Congress will not be in a position to pass a climate act in time for the Copenhagen Climate Conference due to start in 90 days. The very cautious bill that the House passed in June goes far beyond what the Senate with its narrow Democratic majority is ready to swallow.

This shows very serious dysfunctions of American democracy. Petty sector and regional interests prevail over global ones; and the White House is unable to muster its troops behind its basic policy lines, whether on climate or on health.

The European Parliament should make a last try to convince their colleagues in Washington of the absolute necessity to go ahead with effective climate legislation, which is a precondition for a successful outcome of the global climate conference. A few prominent members of the Environment Committee should travel to Washington for extensive talks with the senators opposed to any serious climate legislation. This should happen in the next four weeks as the foremost priority, even if the chances of success appear very slim.

Fortunately the USA has an alternative to legislative action. It can decree effective climate measures, whether emissions caps or fuel efficiency standards by executive regulation. In 2007 the US Supreme Court has ruled that green house gas emissions fall under the Clean Air Act, but the Bush Administration had persistently refused to make use of this legal facility for taking any action against C02 emissions. President Obama has reversed the Bush position. He has instructed the Environmental Protection Agency to prepare appropriate regulation for C02 emissions from major emitters, utilities like utilities, refineries, steel and chemical industries, which it has been doing since the spring.

He can therefore contour the resistance of Congress to legislate. That is fortunate. He can thus negotiate the C02 reductions he considers to be acceptable to the USA in return for appropriate cuts by other major emitter countries. He will have to do this unilaterally, as the US Senate will continue to refuse ratification of an international climate agreement that would impose binding commitments on the USA.

The only question will be the depth of the cuts to which he might consent. Without legislative backing by the Senate he is unlikely to go beyond the House bill, which foresees a 17 percent cut over 2005 until 2020, which would bring US emissions in 2020 only back to 1990 levels. This is far below European expectations and what is needed to stabilise the global climate by the middle of the century. But if that target goes along with a 50 percent cut by 2030, it might just about be acceptable to get the process started in the USA.

The alternative would be cruel: no agreement at Copenhagen whatsoever.

Brussels, 20.09.09 Eberhard Rhein

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