Franz Litz – After Durban

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Durban is Past.  Now Let’s Reduce Our Global Warming Pollution.

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This past weekend, the international climate change negotiations in Durban, South Africa, ended with a positive whimper. The 192 countries participating in the negotiations have decided they will work toward a binding international agreement over the next 4 years. No new commitments to reduce global warming pollution are expected to kick in until 2020. In other words, international negotiators have just kicked the can down the road.

The United Nations climate negotiations began nearly 20 years ago in Rio de Janeiro with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.  The UNFCCC was signed by President George H.W. Bush in 1992, and was then ratified by the U.S. Senate.  It wasn’t until five years later in 1997 when the Kyoto Protocol was signed that countries actually committed to reduce greenhouse gas pollution. 

The United States signed the Kyoto Protocol, but never ratified it.  The Protocol never stood a chance in the U.S. Senate where it needed 67 votes. Under the Kyoto Protocol, the U.S. was to reduce its global warming pollution to 7% below 1990 levels by the end of 2012.  Here we are at the beginning of 2012 and U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are at 8% above 1990 levels and projected to rise without additional effort.

Many observers around the world are blaming the United States for delaying progress on a binding international treaty in recent years. While this blame is well placed, the U.S. negotiators had no other option. 

The Obama Administration cannot count on the U.S. Senate to ratify a new climate change treaty. 67 votes for ratification are simply not in the realm of the possible.  In fact, one can argue that any climate treaty requiring ratification would meet an even more hostile reception in Washington today than the Kyoto Protocol did in 1997. What good would another repudiation by the U.S. Senate do for the international climate cause?

The picture is not as bleak as it might seem to the international community. U.S. efforts to reduce emissions are underway–just not in Congress. Through EPA and DOE action, and through the action of states and local governments, emissions will be reduced.

In a World Resources Institute study that I coauthored with Nicholas Bianco last year, we estimated the reductions possible without congressional action.  We concluded that EPA and other federal agencies, plus action from states, can start us on the path to meeting the Copenhagen commitment of a 17% reduction by 2020. Those efforts depend on Obama having the courage to implement the reductions possible under existing laws. It also depends on states stepping up to do the right thing on renewables, energy efficiency and other policies to reduce emissions.

This Administration has taken some strong steps to reduce GHGs in the United States–most notably in the vehicles sector.  It has yet to move strongly on reductions from power plants and industry, though those actions are in the queue.   

The position of the Obama Administration in Copenhagen and Cancun and now again in Durban reflects the reality that Obama can only do so much without congressional support.  He cannot enter into a binding international treaty, but he can make a “political” commitment to reducing emissions as he did personally when he became the first U.S. President to attend the negotiations in Copenhagen two years ago.

Instead of lamenting the weak results in Durban, we must work to make action on climate change and clean energy a reality at the local, state and national levels here at home.  That means first and foremost driving investments in energy efficiency and expanding our renewable energy portfolios. Only then will we create the conditions for U.S. leadership internationally.

Franz Litz is the Executive Director of the Pace Energy and Climate Center and Professor of Law at Pace Law School.

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