Kate Mackenzie Climate change: The despair edition

Things may be looking a little brighter today in the financial world – at least, there are signs of ‘cautious optimism’ – but gloom is beginning to set in about efforts to reach agreement on climate change. A Guardian survey of attendees of a scientific conference in Copenhagen last month suggested that a large majority of climate scientists do not believe that a climate increase of more than 2°c, a threshold which is thought vital to avoid devastating damage, will be averted.

But there are other signs of despondency, particularly focused on the US. Swallowing the inevitable costs of reducing carbon emissions was always going to be more difficult in the face of a deep recession, but the new US administration’s determination to break with the past gave a lot of cause for optimism. Now it seems that some misgivings are creeping in: the New York Times last week suggested the Obama administration had switched to a more cautious approach, and said officials were telling their overseas counterparts “that they need time to gauge the American public’s appetite for an ambitious carbon reduction scheme before leading any international effort”.

One environmental and energy lobbyist with close ties to the White House said the administration had been inhibited by a number of factors, including vacancies in many top policy jobs, an intense early focus on the financial and economic crises, and an unwillingness to alienate business and Congressional leaders with a heavy-handed approach.

Meanwhile James Hackett, chief executive of successful oil company Anadarko, told the FT that the Obama administration’s “histrionic and maniacal focus on carbon dioxide” was “taking the economy into a tailspin”. Other oil companies may make far more supportive noises in public, but Carola Hoyos observes that Hackett’s assessment “echoes the private views of many oilmen less willing to be quite so direct and reveals the fissure developing between the industry and Washington”.

The United States’ importance in reducing carbon emissions is difficult to overstate. As well as being the world’s biggest energy user, its past reluctance to sign the Kyoto Protocol and commit to the same kinds of emissions reductions as its fellow western nations has given fast-growing, poorer countries plenty of reason to argue against suffering the cost of curbing emissions themselves. As my colleague Fiona Harvey noted from last week’s talks in Bonn, the Bush administration’s aversion to Kyoto continues to complicate the already cumbersome efforts to reach a new international agreement by the end of the year.

Meanwhile the Peterson Institute is downbeat about carbon reduction targets becoming an excuse for protectionist measures. Remember those reports in February that much of China’s carbon emissions were generated in producing goods for western markets? And suggestions that the US might impose a carbon tax on imports? They paint a grim picture of how this sort of thing could play out:

Besides, any performance standards that the United States imposes on foreign firms, and any “comparability” tests it imposes on foreign greenhouse gas control systems, can be turned around and imposed on the United States. For example, the United States might impose its own carbon tax or performance standards on imports of steel rebar products from India, citing an exceptionally high level of carbon emissions per ton of Indian rebar production. In turn, India might impose a duty on all imports from the United States, citing the exceptionally high figure of US per capita carbon emissions compared with the world average.*

A frightening scenario for both environmentalists and free-trade advocates. Perhaps the only silver lining is that, with low oil prices dampening investment, the much-predicted return of steep oil price rises next year will spur more enthusiasm for alternative energy.

*NB: We can’t locate a URL for this piece, which came in an email alert promoting a new book on the subject published by the Institute.

Related links:

Obama, who vowed rapid action on climate change, turns more cautious (NY Times)
Arguing over cap and trade
(FT Energy Source)