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Environment

US unlikely to seize initiative in Cancun

President Obama failed to pass legislation this year that would curtail US greenhouse gas emissions. In the wake of the Democrats' midterm election losses, it's unlikely that the US will seize the initiative in Cancun.

Close up of Obama

US President Obama is sending an empty-handed delegation to Cancun

A day after the Democrats' defeat in congressional elections this November, President Barack Obama acknowledged that it would be hard to push a climate treaty through Congress.

Most of the newly elected Republican Senators and Representatives either deny climate change or they contest its dangers. Even a few Democrats are sceptical about it.

They're afraid of the negative ramifications a treaty might have on the economy due to higher energy prices and rising unemployment.

Looking for new means

coal power plant

The Environmental Protection Agency may be Obama's last best hope

Obama, who made climate policy a top issue of his presidential campaign, has indicated that progress remains possible, despite the disastrous outcome of this year's midterm elections for his party.

"Carbon trade was just one way of skinning the cat. It was not the only way. And I'm going to be looking for other means to address this problem."

He'll need to, if he wants to keep the promise he made during at last year's summit in Copenhagen: To reduce the United States' carbon dioxide emissions by 17 percent on 2005 levels by the end of the decade.

At least one option is open to the president. The US environmental authority EPA classified carbon dioxide as a public threat to health, and has introduced regulations for the emissions of cars and factories.

The first guidelines will take effect next year.

Republicans will try to stop the guidelines from being implemented, but even if they pass an opposing bill in Congress, the President would need to sign it into law.

That's not going to happen, says Todd Stern, US Special Envoy for Climate Change: "The President has made clear, and we have made clear, that the United States is standing behind the pledge that we made last year. There's no change in that."

Democrat Senator John Kerry

Senator John Kerry failed to get Republicans to support an energy bill this year

Compromise with Republicans?

President Obama hopes to compromise with Republicans on a series of smaller climate policy issues.

Nick Loris, energy expert for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, says this may yet be possible.

"There are policies that we wouldn't support but I think they can get done. I mean even if you look at President Bush's administration – there were two energy bills in 2005 and 2007 that conservatives and proponents of the free market opposed but Republicans got behind," Loris said.

Like many conservatives in the US, Loris is not fond of such bills. He says energy generation should be left to a free market.

However, a number of Republicans support tax breaks for wind, solar, and nuclear energy, as well as higher energy efficiency standards.

Despite this, the comprehensive energy bill that passed the House of Representatives was never even debated in the Senate.

This has left individual states in the US to take the lead.

Some states, for example California, have already passed strict waste gas regulations. California, the world's eighth largest economy, has also proposed a law for trading emissions fashioned upon the European model.

It aims to provide a market-based solution for encouraging companies to embrace cleaner technologies and higher energy efficiency standards.

Obama's climate envoy, Todd Stern, recently acknowledged that California has always played a pioneering role in environmental policy. He also said that he was very relieved to hear that the effort to derail California's carbon trade bill was defeated in a referendum during the midterm elections.

Hoping for the President's leadership

close up of Nick loris

Nick Loris says Obama may be able to compromise with Republicans on some issues

So other than the efforts of individual states, the US delegation will arrive at Cancun with empty hands.

According to Greenpeace climate expert Kyle Ash, the US government's strategy prior to the midterm elections was to prolong international negotiations until a US climate treaty was passed.

If Obama holds on to this strategy, this could mean another three years of climate stalemate – until the next presidential elections. Yet Kyle Ash also sees another possibility.

"Obama has the legal authority to commit the US to strong targets and to come to agreement on all of the issues in Cancun," he said.

Obama could even make financial commitments, since long-term investments don't have to be passed in their entirety by the current Congress. But Ash also says one would have to be particularly optimistic about these prospects given the current political and economic climate.

Despite this, the Greenpeace expert hopes that Obama will seize the initiative after his recent loss in the midterm elections.

"If there's one issue that's super important, that affects not just foreign policy but domestic policy in a big way - that's climate change."

Author: Christina Bergmann, David Schnicke
Editor: Nathan Witkop

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