The Call

Copenhagen will be a bust for climate change

Copenhagen will be a bust for climate change

By Ian Bremmer

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the demands of domestic politics in several key countries ensure that there isn’t going to be a substantive treaty agreement on climate change from December’s Copenhagen summit. No government will want the blame –but Washington is the most likely to take a diplomatic black eye.

So far, the intransigence of China and India on emissions reduction targets has been considered the primary hurdle for a deal at the summit, but new green policies by both countries will shift international focus to the advanced economies. To improve the image of a government that’s often thought to promote industrialization and economic growth at all (environmental) costs, Chinese officials have worked hard to take on a leadership role in alternative energy production and to make managing the impact of climate change a state priority. Beijing has recently announced the incorporation of low-carbon growth into economic planning, creating relatively hard targets for the use of renewable energy (15-20 percent of total energy consumption within 10 years), and inserting hard carbon emission peaks into state planning. That will give Beijing something to brag about in Copenhagen.

India too has stepped up work on energy efficiency, a big push to expand use of hydrocarbon alternatives, state investment in sustainable agriculture, and funding for carbon capture. Since Chinese and Indian per capita emissions remain well below those of developed states, they’ll argue together in favor of a deal that includes targets for per-capita emissions — and they’ll continue to insist that countries that are already fully industrialized should pick up the tab for the expensive initiatives they want developing states to adopt. But the amount of money that developed states will offer to put toward the developing world will be an insignificant fraction of what Beijing and New Delhi want. India wants rich-world countries to set aside 0.5 percent of GDP. China wants double that.

The United States has yet to announce a plan. President Obama won’t be able to coax cap-and-trade legislation through the Senate anytime soon. The best his team can offer at Copenhagen is the House-passed Waxman-Markey bill, which will have to go through serious changes before it can win enough votes to reach the president’s desk — if it gets there at all. And Obama can’t turn to Japan for political cover, because the newly elected DPJ government will propose ambitious emission targets that bring Tokyo into closer alignment with the EU.

At Kyoto, the Clinton administration negotiated a position that Congress wouldn’t support. Obama has enough Clinton veterans around him to carry that lesson with him as he tries over the next couple of months to lower expectations for a treaty. In Copenhagen, his negotiators will likely offer broadly defined targets for global emissions reductions, saving the details for a future gathering, when he has a better sense of what he can sell at home. That won’t prevent the summit from becoming a major foreign-policy setback for a president whom many around the world would really like to embrace.