Industry, greens react to lower expectations for climate talks

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Advocates on all sides of the climate change issue are carefully mapping out their next moves, in the wake of the decision by world leaders to scale back ambitions for a treaty in Copenhagen next month.

Environmental groups, who had argued that it was crucial to make progress this year on an international accord to reduce greenhouse gases, are taking pains to stress the positive. Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), blogged that the meaning of the delay — and whether or not it is a setback — depends on what actually occurs at Copenhagen. “An extension — months not years — could be worthwhile if countries use the time to firm up their commitments to reduce their global warming pollution and to finalize all the details… to ensure that those commitments are met.”

But Kevin Fay, executive director of the International Climate Change Partnership, a coalition that bills itself as a moderate business voice in the climate debate, notes that the decision not to go for a final treaty at Copenhagen — after so much build-up — sends a message that may hinder progress in the coming months. “The problem is the perception it creates, particularly in the private sector to senior executives,” he says. “Once again, ‘Are they serious or not about this issue?’”

Doug Russell, a former climate negotiator for Canada who now works for the industry consulting group PFC Energy and Cogent Analysis Group, says that political leadership will be needed before industry around the world gets fully on board in working toward a climate solution. “A continued lack of clarity doesn’t help,” he says. “Once you get the political direction decided, including general targets and what developing countries are going to do and the level of oversight, at that point you’ll see business re-engage.”

The failure of the United States to advance a climate change plan through Congress, despite President Obama’s pledge of leadership on the issue, stymied negotiations as other major economies — in particular, the current largest carbon emitter, China — would not lay out the specifics of their plans until hearing from the world’s largest economy. That led to the decision Sunday at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Singapore to back a plan by Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen to leave the final details and signing of a climate treaty for next year. Parties still plan to work out a political agreement outlining the ambitions of the treaty at Copenhagen, and many observers saw signs of hope in a statement released during Obama’s visit to China — indicating for the first time that Washington might name specific emissions reduction targets at Copenhagen even though Congress has not yet passed legislation.

Many factors account for the slow pace of climate policy in the United States, including the Obama administration’s decision to move politically difficult health care reform through Congress first. But intense lobbying by businesses that portray the measure as a jobs-killer also has been a factor. “Certainly the opposition affected the pace of movement in the United States and has had a secondary impact on Copenhagen,” says Pete Altman, NRDC’s climate campaign director in Washington, D.C.

But John Scowcroft, who heads up environmental issues for the European Union of the Electricity Industry, points out that it is not as simple as the coal industry hobbling a bill — but also politicians taking into account all the voters who are employed by the impacted industries. “To say business is driving the whole thing is rather misunderstanding the political process,” he said. “EU industry would be flattered if people thought we had that much power.”

Check out The Global Climate Change Lobby and follow the project on Twitter.

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