Steps to Meaningful Action

Click here to download the article (PDF).

November 2010

By Eileen Claussen

This article originally appeared in Environmental Finance.


The US failure to pass comprehensive climate legislation obscures real efforts towards reducing emissions – and should not be an obstacle to meaningful progress in Cancún, says Eileen Claussen.

The shift in expectations between the Copenhagen and Cancun negotiations is stark. Unlike the unrealistic hope of striking a new climate treaty held by many last year, no major deal is expected at this year’s global climate change conference in Mexico. But calmer conditions heading into Cancun this December offer a greater chance of meaningful progress on the long voyage to a new international agreement.

Last year’s summit produced the Copenhagen Accord, a political agreement including (for the first time ever) explicit emissions reduction pledges from all major economies. While most agree that a legally binding agreement is still the ultimate goal of these ongoing negotiations, the best plausible outcome in Cancun would be a set of concrete decisions that strengthen the international climate framework.

Core among these decisions: steps to scale up finance to developing countries; and steps to promote transparency so that all nations can be confident that others are fulfilling their pledges. These agreements would open the door to decisions on support for adaptation, climate-friendly technology diffusion, and forest protection. A balanced package like this would mark real progress in Cancun. None of this will be easy. When we consider the domestic challenges many countries face in advancing climate action, especially during difficult economic times, an already complex picture gets extraordinarily muddled.

The United States and China, the world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitters, stand out as chief obstacles. There cannot be a binding international treaty without them, and right now, neither is able or willing to negotiate one.  As China solidifies itself as a global clean energy leader, outspending the United States nearly two-to-one in clean energy investments last year, its emissions continue to soar. And when it comes to addressing climate change globally, China is not distinguishing itself as a leader. China seems reluctant to be transparent about its actions, is unwilling to accept any kind of binding commitment, and opposes a global emissions goal since that would have implications for Chinese emissions.

Meanwhile, the United States has attracted a great deal of attention for its failure to enact national climate legislation, but it is not alone among developed countries. Australia, Canada, and Japan also lack comprehensive national greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction laws. Still, the world looks to America to act.

The United States’ inability to move decisively makes it a big target for those looking to blame someone for the slow pace of the international climate talks.  The Obama administration has repeatedly reaffirmed its commitment to the United States’ Copenhagen pledge – reducing emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. But it must show the international community that it has a genuine strategy for achieving that goal. 

Such a roadmap should lay out step by step the various regulatory actions that will start to deliver real reductions in U.S. emissions, while establishing a timetable for enacting domestic climate legislation. Without that, America runs the risk of looking like it is backing away from its pledge, thereby opening the door for other countries to follow suit. U.S. leadership in the form of an emissions reduction strategy would go a long way toward keeping other countries honest and engaged.

Indeed, even in the absence of comprehensive U.S. legislation, federal regulations and the marketplace can combine to deliver positive results for the climate. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) already is taking reasonable steps under the Clean Air Act that will reduce emissions from transportation and utilities sectors, which account for about two-thirds of U.S. GHG output. Tougher auto efficiency standards requiring 35.5 miles per gallon on average by 2016, with a proposed increase to 62 MPH by 2025, offer clear climate benefits.  New standards for hazardous air pollutants will force the retirement of as many as one-third of existing U.S. coal-fired power plants over the next decade. Their likely replacements: natural gas-fired plants that produce fewer GHGs.

Meantime, new shale gas discoveries are driving down market prices, making natural gas an attractive alternative that will reduce emissions in the near term. And although still a small portion of total U.S. electricity generation, wind power has increased by 40 percent annually in recent years. This all suggests that U.S. emissions will hold steady or even decline over the next decade. 

Despite key obstacles to a binding deal – including the lack of U.S. legislation and China’s hard-line positions – I believe that the Cancun meeting in December can deliver on many of the nuts-and-bolts decisions critical to advancing the international framework. Whether or not we can forge comprehensive solutions at the international or domestic levels is not the test of progress at this juncture. Rather, in Washington, Beijing, and Cancun, it is time to put one foot in front of the other and take the steps that will keep us on track to our ultimate destination: real reductions in emissions at all levels and an effective, ratifiable global climate agreement.

Eileen Claussen is President of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.