As U.S. Climate Bill Stalls, Global Treaty Languishes

Claire McCaskillThe U.S. Senate will not vote on a proposed climate change bill until spring 2010, Majority Leader Harry Reid said on Tuesday. 

An effort to overhaul the United States' healthcare system has pushed other political issues, climate change included, to the sidelines. Senators are no longer planning to vote on the climate bill until March or April.

"I don't think anyone's excited about doing another really, really, big thing that's really, really hard that makes everybody mad," said Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Senator, in a press conference on Tuesday. "Climate fits that category."

International climate negotiations have stalled as delegates wait for the U.S. Congress to approve climate legislation. With the Senate still undecided, U.S. negotiators will not likely approve legally binding emission reductions when they join world leaders in Copenhagen, Denmark, next month to develop a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol, said Carol Browner, assistant to President Barack Obama for energy and climate change.

"We're not going to have a final, legally binding agreement in Copenhagen," Browner said Wednesday at a carbon economy conference hosted by The Economist. "But Copenhagen can be an important step forward."

The House of Representatives passed a bill in June that sets an economy-wide cap on greenhouse gas emissions. A Senate bill, approved earlier this month by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, is stalled until the healthcare debate concludes.

Without passage of U.S. climate legislation, Obama and his administration have been unwilling to specify emission targets or dedicate funding for greenhouse gas mitigation and climate change adaptation efforts in the developing world.

The U.S. reluctance has, in turn, led countries such as China and India to avoid emission targets as well. During Obama's visit to China this week, for example, he and Chinese President Hu Jintao agreed only to "take significant mitigation actions and stand behind these commitments" at the United Nations summit in Copenhagen.

World leaders recognized the delayed progress on international negotiations this week at an Asia-Pacific Economic Summit forum meeting in Singapore. The attendants, which included Obama, announced their support for a proposal by Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen to work toward a political agreement in Copenhagen and delay a legally binding treaty until next year at a UN summit in Mexico City.

The Rasmussen agreement calls for specific emission reduction pledges from developed and developing countries, in addition to financial commitments from wealthier countries to assist the developing world.

Jason Grumet, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Bipartisan Policy Center, said the Copenhagen summit is now likely to be no more than "a passionate commitment to commit."

In the U.S. Senate, cap-and-trade legislation has been delayed not only due to the healthcare debate. Many moderate Democrats and Republican Senators are currently opposed due to economic concerns and confusion about the proposed formation of a carbon market.

"We're having a very hard time finding Republican senators who want to talk about an economy-wide cap, even if it includes 100 nuclear reactors and offshore drilling everywhere," Grumet said.

Several senators are worried that the legislation would lead to higher electricity costs, especially in coal-reliant states, and prevent U.S. industries from competing with businesses located in countries not subject to greenhouse gas restrictions.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates [PDF] that the proposed cap-and-trade legislation would cost the average household between $80 and $111 annually.

Many senators are not considering the potential employment benefits that the legislation may generate, however, by creating incentives for the growth of low-carbon industries, said Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

"When people in Congress talk about competitiveness, they're talking about ways to preserve manufacturing jobs in the economy, not new ‘clean energy' jobs that could be created," Claussen said.

Meanwhile, Senators John Kerry, Joseph Lieberman, and Lindsey Graham announced earlier this month that they were meeting with Browner to form an alternative climate bill. Their compromise legislation may contain additional incentives for nuclear energy and offshore drilling, the senators said.

"The conversation is not if there is a bill. The conversation has become what the bill will have to do," Browner said. "It's a different tone. That is cause for optimism."

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

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