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Europe's Post-Copenhagen View of Obama

January 13, 2010 |
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The Copenhagen summit on climate change taught Europe a hard lesson about its trans-Atlantic partner. Great hope had greeted President Obama when he replaced George W. Bush at the American helm, but a year later Europeans are realizing that Mr. Obama is going to have a very difficult time delivering on his agenda.

During the Copenhagen summit, the American media portrayed President Obama as a global dealmaker, shuttling from leader to leader trying to broker various compromises. What Mr. Obama was really doing was a lot of fence-mending, because the United States was seen as the principal obstacle — and Mr. Obama as the footdragger-in-chief — that prevented any ambitious agreements from being signed.

Certainly the developing countries, led by China and India, were behaving stubbornly, but for good reason. The United States is by far the largest per-capita polluter in the world. Each American generates about 45,000 pounds of carbon dioxide a year, twice as much as the average European or Japanese, and 4 to 10 times more than someone living in China, India or any other developing country. China is close to the U.S. in terms of total carbon emissions — each emits about 25 percent of the world’s total — but it has four times more people.

The U.S. demanded that the developing world join in making drastic cuts, but the poorer countries cried foul. As one Indian official said, “First you do virtually nothing to cut your emissions, and then you threaten us [the developing world] with drowning from global warming sea level rise if we don’t cut ours. It won’t wash.”

So it was known all along that the U.S. had to offer something ambitious to start off the bargaining. In a real sense, the success of Copenhagen depended on the United States — that is, on President Obama.

Instead, what Mr. Obama offered was a bait-and-switch. Leading up to Copenhagen, Europe already had committed itself to reduce carbon emissions by 20 percent by 2020, and offered to go to 30 percent if the U.S. matched it.

That was a generous offer, especially considering that Europe already has an “ecological footprint” that is half that of the United States because it has done far more than the U.S. to implement conservation and renewable technologies.

American negotiators countered by offering to reduce carbon emissions by 17 percent — but stipulated that it would be 17 percent of 2005 levels, whereas most other countries used the benchmark of 1990 levels. The difference is substantial: In effect, America was agreeing to reduce carbon emissions by only about 4 percent of 1990 levels.

When the U.S. negotiators made this offer, the shock that echoed around Copenhagen was palpable. Everyone knew its ramifications — mainly that China, India and the developing nations would walk away from any significant agreement. So when Mr. Obama finally arrived in Copenhagen, he was in complete face-saving mode.

Another sticking point at Copenhagen was that the developing world insisted, quite rightly, that the developed world should pay for much of the poor nations’ carbon mitigations, since the developed world had caused most of the pollution to begin with.

Here again, Europe stepped up with an initial offering of up to $15 billion a year for the next decade to help developing nations cope with climate warming. Yet the Obama administration didn’t offer anything close to that amount.

A consistent pattern has emerged, where the world has seen more symbolic gestures than accomplishments from the Obama administration.

Even the White House’s biggest achievement has been a disappointment. President Obama signed an executive order to increase U.S. motor vehicle mileage standards to 32 miles per gallon — but not until 2020. That’s a level that European and Japanese cars, which already average 40 m.p.g., have long surpassed, and even China will soon achieve.

Why has President Obama been so unwilling to match his lofty words with concrete deeds?

One major reason is the U.S. Senate. Mr. Obama needs 60 of the 100 Senate votes to get climate policy — or any other measure, like health care. This means that the 40 Republican senators joined by a single Democrat or independent can block any measure.

Mr. Obama isn’t delivering because he can’t deliver. The majorities needed for major policy changes are too high a threshold, even for someone with Mr. Obama’s political gifts.

Following Copenhagen, Germany’s environment minister, Norbert Röttgen, had some stinging criticisms for President Obama, as well as for China’s leadership. “We are experiencing a lack of results and an inability to act, triggered mainly by the United States which, in the case of climate protection, is no longer capable of leading,” he said. “China doesn’t want to lead, and the U.S. cannot lead.”

Europe, on the other hand, presented itself as a unified bloc at the summit, with clear goals and a solid strategy. It already has done much to reduce its own carbon footprint. But Europe cannot solve the problem alone. Since its share of global carbon emissions is only about 14 percent, Europe could stop emitting CO2 tomorrow and global warming would still be catastrophic. Said Mr. Röttgen, “On this issue those who emit the most have the greatest power.”

So one of the unfortunate lessons from Copenhagen is that even an Obama-led United States cannot be counted on as a reliable partner. Europe is trying to step into the leadership vacuum, but without the world’s largest national economy and per capita polluter making greater efforts, success is in jeopardy.