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Thursday, May 30, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Senate Fiddles|While Planet Burns

WASHINGTON (CN) - Shortly after world leaders meeting in Copenhagen delayed again any agreement on reducing carbon emissions, senators on Tuesday debated whether the United States should adopt aggressive domestic climate policy or wait for an international agreement.

Nations such as China, India, Brazil and Indonesia are already moving forward on domestic measures tackling climate change despite their resistance to international commitments.

"If Copenhagen fails, there will be an effort to blame the United States," Climate Advisers President Nigel Purvis said during his testimony before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. He said other nations are waiting for a clear climate policy from the United States in deciding whether they themselves will adopt aggressive policies. "At some point the international community would like a clear window on what the United States has to offer," he said.

Purvis said the country has a six month to one year window to build a definitive policy towards climate change if it to take an important lead role.

Experts who called on the United States to develop an ambitious domestic energy policy were largely at odds with Republicans, who argued that United States should not adopt an economically burdensome policy without an international agreement.

"When you drive up the cost of energy, you definitely lose some jobs," Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions said in a jab at the climate bill recently passed out of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. He expressed concern that nations which don't limit their emissions would take American jobs and business.

The International Energy Agency has said that China, India, the Europe, and the United States will need to cut their energy-related emissions by 12 to 15 percent by 2020 and by 34 to 42 percent by 2030. "What will matter most to meeting this extraordinary challenge is the introduction of strong and effective domestic policies in the biggest economies," Levi from the Counsel on Foreign Relations said. "International agreements and initiatives, while essential, are no substitute."

Alaska Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski disagreed. "Climate change is quite clearly a global challenge that requires nothing less than a global solution," she said, and spoke against the climate legislation now before the Senate, saying that it would suppress economic growth. She said such action by the United States would do little to make a global difference, and proposed that the nation pass legislation that other nations would be more willing to adopt.

But even without strong legislation yet passed by the United States Congress, other world leaders are making significant pledges, though the pledges are not legally binding. Even China and India, who once told the developed world to largely handle the problem by itself, have since moderated their tones and are now taking more measures to cut carbon emissions themselves.

"Top Chinese officials have come to the conclusion that there simply are not enough resources in the world to support another billion people living the energy-intensive lifestyle of the West," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Taiya Smith said during her testimony.

Smith listed sapping of economic growth and unrest resulting from environmental and public health degradation as motivations for China to move forward on emissions controls, noting that there are about 25 protests a day due to environmental issues.

India, which emits roughly a quarter of what China emits, is wary of signing onto mandatory reductions, Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Michael Levi said, but added that India has taken a much more positive role outside the United Nations forum.

India plans to increase its nuclear capacity to 20 GW, or 20 large plants worth, over the next ten years and may attempt to install more than double the amount of solar capacity currently installed worldwide. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently said that India should make important cuts in emissions and submit them to international scrutiny, although he has retracted some similar statements.

Japan has already pledged to cut emissions by 25 percent of 1990 levels by 2020, and the European Union has said it will make a 30 percent cut if others take similar actions.

Levi said that European countries are willing to pay more to developing countries than the United States in promoting their adoption of emissions reduction policies, and that Europeans are more likely to accept a lopsided deal, where developing countries are left to adopt voluntary cuts.

Indonesia also aims to reduce emissions, pledging to cut 26 percent below "business as usual" levels by 2020, although the definition of such levels may be hard to define. It has said that it would decrease reductions in emissions by 41 percent if it receives international financial support. Indonesia, like Brazil, makes up one of the five largest emitters.

And Brazil has pledged to reduce deforestation in the Amazon region by 80 percent by 2020. Deforestation, which accounts for 17 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, is already down 50 percent there from its peak in 2004.

During the hearing, Sessions expressed concern over a cap and trade provision in the Senate climate bill, saying that under the provision, American dollars could pay for a steal mill in China to become more efficient. "Am I missing something here?" he asked.

But the experts continued to give their full support the possibility of carbon offsets. "The availability of offsets is central to the affordability of any scheme," U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for 21st Century Energy President Karen Harbert said. And in response to Sessions' reference to increasing efficiency in China, Levi said, "If all we do is take steps at home, that's insufficient."

Climate legislation has passed out of the House and is now before the Senate. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed a bill out of committee, but it is still being debated before other Senate Committees, including the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The Senate bill would require that U.S. emissions fall 20 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, stricter than the 17 percent drop mandated by the House bill. Both the House and the Senate bills require an 83 percent drop from 2005 levels by 2050.

Just days ago, President Obama and other world leaders downplayed the importance of the Copenhagen summit in forming a legally binding international agreement, saying such an accord would have to be postponed.

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