Even after President Obama's firm acknowledgment of American responsibility for climate change and Chinese President Hu's announcement of a carbon intensity target yesterday, the prospects for a deal on carbon emissions at Copenhagen in seventy days remain murky.
Hu and Obama also met privately yesterday, ahead of the President's visit to Beijing in November. But will this week's meetings lay the groundwork for a linchpin agreement between China and the U.S.? And can a significant agreement at Copenhagen be forged without a U.S. climate bill?
"Negotiations are dangerously close to deadlock at the moment," European Commission President Jose Barroso said yesterday. Barroso said that treaty talks in December hinged upon an agreement being outlined this week in New York or at the G-20 talks in Pittsburgh, reports Bloomberg.
"I've been in global negotiations like this, and I tell you that 80 days before usually we were much closer to the outcome then we are now," Barroso said. "So if we don't move this week there is a real risk that we miss the opportunity in Copenhagen."
Al Gore: Glass Half Full
Al Gore said he saw the glass "very much half full" after Hu's speech, but added the U.S. had a "unique role... in providing important leadership in a situation like this," by passing a climate bill before December.
"The ability of President Obama to wield the moral authority that the US has built up since the end of World War 2...would be greatly enhanced if he could go to Copenhagen with this legislation passed," Gore said.
But seventy days from Copenhagen, the prospect of a complete climate agreement is growing less rosy.
"I don't see us coming to a full, final, ratifiable agreement in Copenhagen," Eileen Claussen, head of the nonprofit Pew Center on Global Climate Change, told Bloomberg.
Hu's announcement today amounts to a framework for absolute carbon emissions in the future, but only a promise of slower growth in carbon emissions in the near term.
A Copenhagen Climate Conference Deal Without a U.S. Climate Bill
Thus, while it signals China's continued commitment to a Copenhagen agreement, China's pledge is unlikely to convince U.S. lawmakers, who are working to pass a bill that could lead to caps in the U.S., and form the basis for an agreement at Copenhagen.
But even without an American climate bill, the U.S. could still come to Copenhagen with a good faith response to China's step. Just as China's move is a signal to other developing nations, a U.S. pledge to curtail carbon emissions would send a strong message to other developed nations.
In his own speech to the UN today, President Obama suggested that helping developing countries on emissions cuts was partly the responsibility of the developed world, a message that nations like China and India have said they want to hear. (The Small Island States yesterday issued a request for even greater carbon cuts.)
The world "cannot allow the old divisions that have characterized the climate debate for so many years to block our progress," said Obama.
China Warming Up To Climate Change Action
China seems to agree. Five years ago, the phrase "climate change" wasn't spoken by Chinese leaders, who saw the issue as part of a conspiracy to undermine the country's development.
Now pollution and climate change are perceived as threats to the country's economy. Hu's speech is the strongest sign yet that Beijing is taking Copenhagnen seriously, and an indication of its two-sided approach: put the onus on developed countries while, increasingly, adopt a non-adversarial tone with a framework for cleaning up its own mess.
Other Promising Signs From the U.S. on a Climate Deal
The U.S. is heeding China's attitude. In a conciliatory move, in June U.S. negotiators said that they would not demand binding cuts from China as they sought a Copenhagen deal.
And this month, a US senator said that it was likely the two countries could sign a bi-lateral agreement in November, when President Obama visits Beijing.
Obama's top climate negotiator, Todd Stern, told reporters yesterday in New York that progress in discussions leading up to Copenhagen is "slower than we would like."
"We need to change that dynamic and we can, so long as all of us do our part," he said.
Stern told reporters last week that the goal in December is to get the "most ambitious, most far-reaching accord" possible. "And to the extent that there's some things that need to be completed after that, then that will happen," he said.
In other words, this will be a stop-and-go process, in which China will wait for the U.S. and other countries to pledge the funding of technology transfers before it agrees to mandatory cuts.
The other climate change expert named Stern -- Sir Nicholas, he of the Stern Report -- is confident that such a process will lead to what he told the Financial Times would be an "equitable global deal." (Stern recently observed that some parts of China now have per capita emissions higher than parts of Europe, a finding that partly undercuts China's old deferring of responsibility.)
In Plan, Is Perfect the Enemy of Good?
But to kick things off right, and not let the energy and promise of Copenhagen fizzle out, it's obvious that some compromises will have to be made at the conference. A deal there may not be sealed so much as pasted together.
On Monday Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers repeated an increasingly common refrain heard around the topic of Copenhagen: "perfect is the enemy of good."
Rogers was speaking in context of the sobering reality of China's and the U.S.'s dependence on coal. That, coupled with the need for China and the U.S. to stay conciliatory, may mean that any agreements made in the next months and at Copenhagen will be welcome.
The question is how good a "good" first agreement can be. The answer will determine how fast and how well the world will address climate change, and how well China, the U.S., and other countries will reap the benefits that follow.
In other words, perfect may be the enemy of good. But what will good be the enemy of?
More on Copenhagen on Treehugger
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