The US Emperor brings no clothes to Cancún

Way back on the first day of the Cancún climate change conference, Dr Jonathan Pershing gave a briefing on behalf of the US delegation. After the usual pleasantries, he swiftly reassured journalists that “we remain committed to President Obama’s pledge announced in Copenhagen last year” – to reduce US emissions by 17% by 2020.

Monday this week saw the arrival of US Energy Secretary Dr Steven Chu, the most senior US figure due to join the negotiations. Almost his first act was to deliver the familiar phrase in a presentation to civil society: “President Obama has said the United States will meet our Copenhagen commitments.”

Of course we know that recent US electoral gains by climate-sceptical Republicans lie behind these reassurances. But there’s something about political choreography that prods you into questioning the integrity of the message.

Any weakness within the broad package that US brings to the Cancún table matters a lot. Throughout the year, the US delegation has staked out its tent with the mantra that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”

The inference must be that the Americans themselves have the wherewithal to advance the skimpy contents of the Copenhagen Accord to the next level of detail on all fronts. Jonathan Pershing and his team can snap out the six components as though they were loaded in the chambers of a Colt 45 – mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology, REDD and capacity building.

Developing countries are being pressured to make this forward movement by accepting closer monitoring of how they spend climate aid. Does the US team really have something commensurate to offer on mitigation?

Steven Chu is surely in no position to pledge any increase in the 17% target. He might conceivably contemplate strengthening its integrity within a legally binding UN protocol. But the Chinese would have to follow suit, a big uncertainty.

Studies published during 2010 by the World Resources Institute and others suggest that, even without legislation, the US president has sufficient regulatory leverage to hold down emissions to meet the target. This leverage depends on a range of key areas such as car fuel efficiency, air pollution and incentives for renewable energy.

But those studies predate the mid-term elections. New Republican State governors will be more responsive to the big-coal lobby. Newly elected congressmen have already threatened legislation to restrict the powers of the Environmental Protection Agency.

There is surely scope here for the developing countries to probe the state of the emperor’s clothing.

The problem with any focus on the US share of emission reductions is that it rapidly degenerates into a counsel of despair. If the 17% target can be achieved through regulatory tweaks, what was the point of passing the Clean Energy and Security Act through the House of Representatives in the first place?

And then there is the contrast with what’s happening in Europe. Yesterday the UK Committee on Climate Change published its 4th carbon budget report calling for ministers to take even tougher action on emissions reductions.

The Committee demands an increase in the 2020 target to 37%, and 60% by 2030. This UK process is enshrined in legislation and relates to a 1990 baseline, compared to the backsliding US base year of 2005.

This yawning transatlantic gap in climate action is politically acceptable in the UK only by virtue of its long timeframe and that it is poorly understood. In a globalised economy, it amounts to a seismic rift which is doomed to crack open sooner or later. Whichever way we look, we cannot defeat global warming without climate regime change in US and Canada.

The great and the good of the NGO movement assembled in Cancún should abandon the minutiae of the UNFCCC process, and lock themselves away until they figure out how to win the hearts and minds of 350 million people in North America who hold our fate in their hands.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK