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Why The U.s. Is Lowering Expectations On Climate Talks

Later this year, U.N. delegates will huddle Copenhagen to finalize a new international climate treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol. In a conference call with reporters last week, Yvo de Boer, the U.N.'s top climate official, laid out a blueprint of sorts for the ongoing talks. First, developed countries would offer clear targets for greenhouse-gas reductions by 2020. Second, poorer countries, including China and India, would lay out verifiable steps to start curbing their own carbon pollution. (They likely wouldn't enact mandatory caps right away, but they'd need to lay out measurable policies so that the rest of the world could see what progress they were actually making.) Third, richer countries would ideally offer financial support to help developing countries adapt to whatever climate impacts are unavoidable and shift to cleaner energy sources.

All of that will be awesomely headache-inducing. And it's not clear it can all get finished in 2009, though de Boer sounded adamant that it absolutely had to be. (Privately, I've heard some experts caution that negotiators may have to "stop the clock" and let talks drag on through 2010.) That's why Obama is trying to get a headstart by inviting China, India, the EU, and other "major economies" to Washington next month, to start thrashing issues out. One of the emerging points of tension, in fact, is precisely how much rich countries should cut by 2020. As The Washington Post notes, U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern, while firm on the need for serious emissions cuts, is edging away from the more aggressive goals urged by the U.N. (and many scientists):

Many U.N. delegates are pushing for major cuts in greenhouse gas production--25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels--by 2020.

Those cuts would be deeper than Obama's recently announced goal of reducing U.S. carbon dioxide emissions during that time frame by 16 percent from present levels. But Stern said more ambitious targets might not be politically or economically feasible.

"Let me speak frankly here: It is in no one's interest to repeat the experience of Kyoto by delivering an agreement that won't gain sufficient support at home," Stern told the delegates.

One tricky aspect here is that Congress may not have a domestic cap-and-trade bill passed by the time the Copenhagen talks get underway in December. That won't necessarily weaken Obama's negotiating position. During the conference call, De Boer said that as long as the White House commits to firm targets, other countries won't care if Congress is lagging behind—as long as Congress does eventually follow through. "If the United States could come to Copenhagen with cap and trade passed, that would be applauded, but not essential," de Boer said. (Likewise, one expert recently told me that if Obama agreed to a climate treaty, couldn't get the 67 votes to ratify it in the Senate, but could get domestic cap-and-trade legislation passed that would achieve the cuts outlined in the treaty, that would be fine, too.)

Still, there's a delicate dance going on here: Stern and the Obama team can't just agree to a steep cut that will repel members of Congress—and cutting emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 is a hard push. That really would repeat the experience of the Clinton years, when the White House agreed to a global framework that Congress rejected outright. On the other hand, the stricter targets do fall closer in line with what many climate scientists are now urging. So I'm not sure Stern's trying to lower expectations just for the heck of it—the administration's trying to navigate a rocky course between Congress and the U.N.

(Flickr credit for totally random photo of Copenhagen: siko_ruiz)

--Bradford Plumer