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Obama's Climate Policy Insufficient with Hurdles from Congress

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US President Barack Obama will attend the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen later this week. However, despite his administration's efforts to readjust US policy on the issue, what Obama has promised to do fell far short of the expectation of the international community.

Insufficient progress

How the United States, the world biggest economy with the highest per capita carbon dioxide emissions, responds to climate change has a direct bearing on the international community's efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Unlike his predecessor George W. Bush, whose climate policy has been under wide criticism, Obama poured billions of dollars in economic stimulus plan to developing cleaner sources of energy. The administration is drafting the first greenhouse gas standards for automobiles and poised to start regulating under existing law the heat-trapping pollution discharged by power plants and other large industrial facilities.

The White House also announced the United States will offer a 17-percent reduction target of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 from 2005 levels at the Copenhagen conference. Obama's commitment to the target would reverse long-standing US opposition to mandatory emission cuts during eight years of the Bush administration.

Although the Obama administration has expressed greater readiness to tackle global warming than his predecessor, it has failed so far to do enough to deliver its commitment.

In addition, it failed to give a definite amount in assistance to help developing countries cope with climate change, but chose to attach strings on its low carbon technological transfer to these countries.

Obama's 17-percent target is less than 4 percent emissions cut below 1990 levels, much lower than the 40 percent cut from 1990 levels by 2020 demanded by developing countries.

In fact, the US greenhouse gas emissions continued to grow even though the country has long completed its industrialization. According to statistics from UNFCCC, the US emissions grew by 16percent from 1990 through 2005.

Obstacles from congress

Obama strode into office backed by a Democratic majority in Congress and pledged to do something Bush had not: set mandatory limits on global warming gases; show the country's determination to tackle climate change.

However, after nearly one year in the White House, Obama and his Democratic leaders in Congress have failed to deliver on some of their promises.

Unfortunately, no legislation on curbing greenhouse gases emission seems likely to be passed by the Congress before the New Year's bell rings, crashing the Democratic administration's hope to have it in hand to boost an international agreement at the Copenhagen's climate conference.

The so-called "carbon tariffs" contained in a House legislation have also cast a shadow on the ongoing Copenhagen conference as developing nations fear the "tariffs" may lead to trade protectionism under the guise of environmental protection.

On June 26, the House voted and passed the US Clean Energy and Security Act. The act authorizes the US president to impose a tariff on certain goods from countries that fail to limit their emissions starting from 2020, if the United States does not accede to a related multilateral agreement.

Days after the House's vote, Obama expressed concern over the border tariff provision, saying that protectionist signals were the wrong message to send during a recession that has caused a dip in global trade.

While the House passed the bill in June, the Senate has barely begun to debate the issue.

The Senate is split on climate policy into numerous factions divided by ideology, geography and economic interests. And the divergence just resides in the 60-member Democratic caucus.

Republicans are nearly united in opposition to the kind of legislation that would be needed to match Obama's ambitions. They branded the climate legislation an energy tax and a job killer.

In this regard, centrist Democrats from states that rely on fossil fuels or need them to supply energy-intensive industries had been forced to shy away from the debates.

It is estimated that around a dozen of these Democrats have made it clear that they will not accept any legislation -- or any treaty -- that threatens their industries or jobs. Therefore, at least for the time being, the climate legislation looks unlikely to meet the 60-vote threshold required to summon a vote.

Without Senate action, Obama was heading to Copenhagen hard-pressed to explain exactly how his government would reach the target. And till now, it has been unclear that Obama and his allies in the Senate could overcome these obstacles next year, or ever.

Without the Senate, the entire international project is in jeopardy because without the participation of the United States, which emits 20 percent of global greenhouse gases in total, efforts of any international regime is bound to be in vain.

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