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Climate Concerns> Opinion
UPDATED: December 31, 2009 NO. 1 JANUARY 7, 2010
The Winds of Smart Change
The United States takes an active new approach on climate change, but more still needs to be done



Nearly a year after entering the Oval Office, U.S. President Barack Obama has shown a clear commitment to reversing America's soiled reputation on climate change with a commitment to the increased development of clean energy.

Against a backdrop of a previous administration that refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol at all, America's 44th president is now actively pushing for new legislation on Capitol Hill.

However, the slow maneuverings of U.S. lawmakers, coupled with America's glacial pace at the 2009 UN climate change conference in Copenhagen show just how often words do not always speak as loud as actions.

Moreover, as the biggest economy, energy consumer and greenhouse gas emitter in the world, it is incumbent on the United States to take greater responsibilities when it comes to climate change.

In 2001, the United States withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, which called for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Early in his tenure, George W. Bush, citing the negative effects the protocol could have on American businesses and commerce, dropped out.

Previously, Kyoto Protocol had been passed in 1997 and, by 2005, entered into force nonetheless. Upon introduction, then U.S. Vice President Albert Gore signed it, but Congress—then dominated by the Republican Party—did not follow, citing the same reasons Bush would later give.

Eight years on, many experts agree, the world experienced a great setback as a result.

But with Obama in the Oval Office, and Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, the American Clean Energy and Security Act was passed in the House of Representatives in June 2009.

Greenhouse gas emissions by the United States, according to the act, will be reduced by 17 percent by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050 compared with 2005 levels.

The Senate set in motion two targets of reductions by 20 percent and 80 percent, respectively. Nonetheless, these statistics remain a source of debate—and, more importantly, the bill has yet to be approved.

Rather, this legislation must still be approved through negotiations and finalized through legislative votes before being submitted to the president for his signature.

Obama has emphasized that the U.S. climate act will create millions of job opportunities, thus promoting economic recovery. Meanwhile, he has added, it will strengthen U.S. national security by reducing its dependence on oil imports—in addition, of course, to slowing global warming by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Obama, in office less than 12 months, has come far. There can be no question he has presided over historic progress in America when it comes to climate change.

This has also played prominently in the China-U.S Strategic and Economic Dialogue and Obama's most recent visit to Asia.

But there have been inconsistencies. Obama, most notably, has consistently asked other nations to make more concessions than the United States.

The requirements under the American Clean Energy and Security Act, for instance, lag far behind those of less-developed nations.

By contrast, China declared its intention to reduce carbon intensity—the amount of carbon dioxide emitted for each unit of gross domestic product—by 40 to 45 percent in 2020, compared to the 2005 level, 10 days prior to the Copenhagen conference.

India, meanwhile, has declared a target emissions reduction of 20 to 25 percent by 2020. The U.S. target, however, is far lower than these two developing countries—thus rendering it a frequent target of criticism at the climate summit.

According to the principle of "common and differentiated responsibilities" as defined by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and its Kyoto Protocol, developed countries must lead in emissions reduction.

Moreover, the implementation measures mandated for developing countries are contingent on promised financial and technical support. And these nations' independent actions using their sovereign resources can be taken without international supervision.

The Copenhagen conference aimed at setting new arrangements on emissions reduction after the end of the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol in 2012.

During the conference, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proposed that developed countries provide $30 billion per year by 2012, and $100 billion per year by 2020 to help developing countries deal with climate change.

However, she emphasized this with an important stipulation: that China and other developing countries must provide transparency regarding their emissions reduction. This would include reporting and regulation.

In other words, Clinton actually offered a hollow promise, without any indication of how much money the United States would provide—much less how the $100 billion would be raised.

Indeed, her proposal was little more than a diversionary tactic.

When the Copenhagen summit faced the risk of a meltdown, China, Brazil, India and South Africa, known as the BASIC countries, met for a solution. Obama joined in later and, thus, the Copenhagen Accord was reached.

The positive outcome had two elements: robust U.S. participation, and an international community able to strengthen the dialogue by pushing the United States along the right track.

While meeting with Obama on the sidelines of the Copenhagen summit, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said China appreciates U.S. promises of support for developing nations.

Obama, in turn, expressed appreciation for China's willingness for transparency in emissions reductions.

The author is a research fellow with the China Institute of International Studies

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