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Climate party risks losing its guests

Richard Black | 16:22 UK time, Tuesday, 27 April 2010

When you're deciding whether to get dolled up and head off to the party, do you stop to ask who else might be going?

Few want to risk being seen somewhere where the action is not; most will do what they can to avoid arriving so early as to give the impression that they need the party more than the party needs them.

When cutting carbon emissions is the name of the game, a casual scan around the world might indicate that since Copenhagen, even the most ardent party animals are having a bad dose of cold feet.

Kevin_RuddThe latest country to equivocate over whether to go to the ball is Australia. Faced with implacable opposition in the Senate, Kevin Rudd's government has decided to put on hold the introduction of its emissions-trading scheme.

The Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) was supposed to be the principal tool for reducing Australian emissions by 5-25% from 2000 levels by 2020.

As the comprehensive global deal that Mr Rudd claimed to be chasing did not emerge in Copenhagen, it's probably safe to assume the government has latterly been aiming for 5% rather than 25%. However, meeting even this modest target would require some policies - and now the main one is sheathed.

In the US, too, prospective climate legislation has taken another blow.

The tripartite group of senators scheduled to unveil a new bill on Monday had to postpone their plans when one of the three, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, threatened to pull out if Senate majority leader Harry Reid followed through on talk of quickly introducing a bill to reform immigration policy.

This once again raises the question of whether the US will pass climate legislation at all this year. Mr Graham was a key figure, a Republican climate legislation supporter in an arena where the vast majority of his party is opposed.

There's an oft-cited view among close observers of the US situation that if legislation is to go through, Mr Obama is going to have to throw a lot of personal weight behind it, just as he did behind the equally controversial healthcare reforms.

Will he? The analysis from this group of observers continues with the contention that the two key groups of people advising the president on this issue are pulling in opposite directions.

Those from the "smart climate" camp are saying "yes, do it, do it now". Those in the "smart politics" camp - chief-of-staff Rahm Emanuel is widely named here - are advising the opposite, not because of any opposition to the climate bill per se but because they believe Mr Obama stands to lose more personally than he gains.

Well, that's the theory. If it's correct, Mr Obama clearly has an important choice to make - not only for his reputation, not only for national climate legislation, but for the prospects of a global climate deal that can actually restrain emissions.

The BASIC group of countries - Brazil, China, India and South Africa - has just completed a short ministerial meeting in Cape Town.

One of the least diplomatically-worded segments of their statement reads:

"Ministers noted news reports that domestic legislation in the USA had been postponed and indicated that the world could not wait indefinitely."

Wind_farm_installationSome will scent a whiff of hypocrisy here, as intransigence by the BASIC group - especially China - has been cited as one of the prime causes for Copenhagen's failings.

It's worth recalling, though, that the principles of rich nations acting first, acting fastest and helping everyone else are enshrined in the UN climate convention itself.

It's been around for 18 years, so you might think Australian and US politicians would understand by now the wider context of their domestic choices.

Copenhagen left many of its attendees with the same feeling as a party where the host has dispensed nothing but flat, vinegary beer and made you drink it in a hurry: a throbbing ache of indeterminate origin, a pained bewilderment - and an aversion to going back for a very, very long time.

In the sober light of day, guest by guest, the collective reluctance to return appears to be growing.

As my colleague Nick Bryant notes in his analysis of the latest Australian move:

"An oft-heard argument levelled against the ETS was why should Australia press ahead with such a major structural reform of its resources-based economy when the rest of the world hasn't yet signed up to binding cuts in emissions?
"The government has failed to provide a convincing rebuttal."

And so, you might conclude, has every other government.

Europe is stuck on a 2020 target that - as we showed last week - amounts to less than business-as-usual, Japan's intentions are mired in the government's political troubles, Canada is explicitly tying its emissions targets to those of its southern neighbour, and - most important of all - that southern neighbour is currently showing all the enthusiasm of a mouse invited to a cat party.

The allure of the economic arguments is fading. In some countries, the recession is cutting energy demand, blunting investment in renewables; at 15 euros per tonne, the carbon price continues to bump its belly like a teenage break-dancer doing the "worm".

Pretty much everyone is still saying they want to go to the ball.

But if action is the yardstick, you might conclude that the stars of the show are all veering towards choosing a quiet evening at home with the kids.


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