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Bonn Climate Talks Give Obama's Green Team First Chance to Impress

The Obama administration will enter the complex world of global climate talks this weekend in Bonn amid a furious domestic debate about whether the US should be placing limits on the pollutants that cause global warming.

President Barack Obama

Europe has high hopes for Obama's environmental policies

As government negotiators begin a two-week meeting in Bonn, Germany, on Sunday, Obama's team will be pointing to some immediate policy shifts by the administration that environmentalists have hailed as a dramatic change from former president George W Bush.

Some 190 nations will launch a marathon of meetings, starting in Bonn, designed to culminate in Copenhagen in December with a new pact for curbing greenhouse gases beyond 2012, when provisions under the Kyoto Protocol expire.

"The real negotiations are beginning here in Bonn this weekend," the UN's top climate official, Yvo de Boer, told reporters.

Obama's climate team, headed by Todd Stern, is scheduled to make a statement Sunday at the start of the 11-day meeting.

"I hope they will set out the main principles that will guide the United States," said de Boer, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

"Bonn really is an opportunity to demonstrate that there no longer is a unilateral disdain of the United Nations global warming negotiating process," Edward Markey, a US Democratic congressman who leads a House of Representatives committee dealing with global warming, told reporters this week.

The Bonn meeting comes as new new Obama administration begins to implement its initial environmental policies both at home and abroad under great scrutiny and expectation.

Domestic change hand-in-hand with global moves

The US government's Environmental Protection Agency this week advised the administration that global warming could already be regulated under existing US clean air laws, and earlier this month said it would require US companies to report on their emissions levels for the first time.

Todd Stern

Todd Stern will take point on the US climate team

Both moves represent a change of policy from the Bush administration and are being viewed as steps toward one of Obama's key campaign promises: Government-imposed limits on US emissions of greenhouse-gas emissions blamed for global warming.

The United States and China are the world's largest polluters, combining for nearly half of all global emissions. Per capita, the United States emits about four times as much as China.

Obama has promised to cut US emissions about 15 per cent by 2020 and 80 per cent by 2050. Many world leaders, including China and others in the developing world, are relying on Obama to make headway on that promise before a global deal can credibly be reached.

On the election trail, Obama vowed to match the EU's mid-century objectives -- the EU promises to slash emissions by 20 percent compared to 1900 levels by 2020, and by 30 percent if other industrialized countries follow suit -- but offered a more modest goal for 2020 of simply returning the US to 1990 level emissions.

This is a cut of around 14 percent of current emissions, but still far short of what the EU is proposing and what many scientists say is necessary from the world's biggest polluter after China.

Europe happy to see the back of Bush's climate policies

President Bush speaks during the Major Economies Meeting on Energy Security and Climate Change in 2007

George W. Bush was seen as no friend of the climate

In Europe, there is intense relief at the end of the era of former president Bush, who abandoned Kyoto and opposed binding targets for the US.

Despite warm feelings for Obama and fear that criticizing him could undermine his domestic position, the EU is also worried that his 2020 goal is just too modest.

"We're going to tell them that we don't agree, we think that this is not enough," said a European negotiator, who argued that Japan, Canada and other industrialized countries may well take their cues from the US.

Alden Meyer, a climate expert at the Boston-based Union of Concerted Scientists, agrees there has been some critical "blowback" from European nations looking for stronger US efforts.

But he thinks Washington may be ready to close the gap on the short-term targets, at least part way.

One reason for Obama's caution, though, is to avoid getting too far ahead of climate and energy legislation taking shape in the US Congress.

"What we must avoid -- and the Obama administration recognizes this -- is a repeat of the Kyoto situation where the US brought home an international agreement and Congress would not ratify it," said Jennifer Haverkamp, the top climate expert at the US advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund.

In 1997, the US Senate voted 95-to-0 in a non-binding resolution to reject the new climate treaty as it did not impose commitments on developing countries.

Whether or not Obama has the power to act on his own, the president has said he will seek approval for his domestic climate plans from the Democratic-led Congress. Markey's committee is expected to produce a first draft bill next week and hopes to put legislation before all members of the House by the end of May.

Obama faces tough task to convince US

But tackling climate change is proving a hard sell domestically for Obama as the US economy goes through its deepest recession in decades. US legislators are not expected to pass legislation forcing companies to lower their emissions before the December summit.

A coal-powered power station

Many in the US put solving the economic crisis before reducing CO2

The argument in the United States has become less about the merits of tackling climate change itself and more about whether pushing green energy solutions will help or hurt economic growth.

Obama's preferred method to cut emissions is a cap-and-trade program, a system that already exists in Europe and essentially doles out pollution credits that can be traded between cleaner and dirtier firms.

Opposition Republicans have lambasted the idea as devastating to US growth, and Obama's budget outline released last month indicated he doesn't expect a cap-and-trade plan to be in place until 2012.

"Cap-and-trade is code for increasing taxes, killing American jobs, and raising energy costs for consumers," John Boehner, the top Republican in the House of Representatives said this month.

Whether a bill that reduces climate emissions is eventually approved could depend on some key moderate Republicans. Obama's foe during the 2008 election campaign, Arizona Senator John McCain, is a supporter of cap and trade.

But with many legislators afraid of giving other countries a competitive advantage, success in the US could depend on simultaneous progress internationally. Obama has said he wants to see tough commitments from China, India, and other developing countries that were also left out of the Kyoto Protocol.

Bonn will provide the first opportunity for Obama's team and other countries to flesh out their major disagreements, according to Yvo de Boer.

Governments "really do need to get down to serious work, as of now," de Boer said

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