Leadership on climate change depends on Obama


All eyes are now on US president Barack Obama and whether he can provide real leadership on climate change. Having said nothing about it during the election campaign for fear of losing votes, he came out of the closet in his inauguration speech, saying people could not be left to “raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms”.

As the US was facing its “fiscal cliff” budget crisis, former vice-president and climate change Nobel peace laureate Al Gore urged Obama to push for a carbon tax. “He has the mandate. He has the opportunity, and he has the inherent ability to provide the leadership needed. I really hope that he will,” Gore said. He didn’t.

The US Congressional Research Service has estimated a carbon tax starting at $20 per tonne and rising by 6 per cent a year could raise $154 billion (€114 billion) by 2021, which would be enough to “halve the fiscal deficit”, according to Nick Robins, head of HSBC bank’s climate centre. Rich pickings, in other words.

Gore knows it won’t be easy, but told the Guardian a carbon tax could be made more palatable by offsetting it against cuts in income tax. Public opinion has also shifted in the wake of extreme weather last year, with polls showing 67 per cent of Americans agreeing that climate change is real – up from 57 per cent in 2009.

In his state of the union speech last week, Obama mentioned regulating carbon, doubling the use of renewables, boosting alternative energy for transport and halving energy waste. “If Congress won’t act soon, I will direct my cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take,” he said.

The New York Times has also rowed in behind taking action. In an editorial on December 27th last, the newspaper said Obama needed to do a “good deal more” than engage in dialogue on climate change. However, it cautioned that a “cap-and-trade” regime or a direct tax on carbon “seems out of the question for this Congress”.

Bitumen sands

There are still powerful forces ranged against changing the order of things. Take the Canadian tar sands lobby, for example. Government officials from Ottawa toured European capitals last month in an effort to have fuel derived from the bitumen sands of Alberta treated leniently in the EU’s directive on fuel quality.

Oil from tar sands emits between 19 and 40 per cent more CO2 than conventional oil, and the huge increase in its production explains why Canada had to withdraw from the Kyoto protocol. Even in 2008, its greenhouse gas emissions were 24 per cent above 1990 levels, when they should have been cut by 6 per cent.

Under its Framework Convention on Climate Change, the UN set 2015 as the deadline for reaching an international agreement on what needs to be done, taking effect in 2020. There is a growing consensus, after 18 years of annual conferences on the issue, that countries will have to enact their own laws first.

UN climate chief Christiana Figueres said a deal “will not be reached until and unless there is enough domestic legislation implemented”. Speaking at an international meeting of legislators in London, she said this meant “each country needs to adopt the climate legislation that is appropriate for its national reality”.

This is precisely what the Global Legislators’ Organisation (Globe) has been saying. “It is by implementing national legislation that the political conditions for an international agreement will be created,” general secretary Adam Matthews said. But he was optimistic, as 32 out of 33 major economies surveyed were getting on with it.

Emerging economies

“Much of the substantive progress on legislative activity on climate change in 2012 took place in emerging economies, including China, which will provide the motor of global economic growth in coming decades”, he said, and this would “give world leaders the political space to go further and faster in the UN negotiations”.

Highlights include Mexico, which adopted a general law on climate change with a target 30 per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, while South Korea passed legislation that will see the introduction of an emissions-trading scheme by 2015 and Bangladesh set up a renewable energy development authority.

China – now the world’s biggest emitter – has begun to draft its national climate change law, India’s latest five-year plan incorporates recommendations made by its low-carbon expert group, Japan has introduced a carbon tax, Kenya has developed a climate change action plan and Vietnam is acting to curb deforestation.

Sweden, already one of the lowest-carbon developed economies, has ambitious goals to achieve a fossil-fuel-independent vehicle fleet by 2030 and no net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. What it needs to do now is identify how these goals can be met cost-effectively.

Although the approach often differs – driven by climate change, energy efficiency, energy security or competitiveness – the Globe survey found that the results were similar: improved energy security, greater resource-efficiency and cleaner, lower carbon economic growth – exactly what’s needed to mitigate global warming.

Globe’s president, former British environment secretary John Gummer, described this as “a game-changing development, driven by emerging economies . . . across each and every continent”. But his conviction that this shows “the tide is beginning to turn decisively on tackling climate change” is likely to be wildly optimistic.

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