Slouching Towards Copenhagen?

October 24, 2008
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold -W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming Could two U.S. delegations end up at the UN climate conference in Copenhagen next year? I’m beginning to think so. There have been some suggestive developments in recent weeks, although you could be forgiven for missing them in the furor over the financial crisis and rescue plan. In late September, in a quiet counterpoint to the chaos on Capitol Hill, the Washington Post reported that the country’s first cap-and-trade auction raised $40 million for Northeastern states to spend on renewable energy technologies and energy-efficiency programs:
In the absence of a federal government program to cap the amount of carbon dioxide that power plants pump out of their smokestacks, 10 Northeastern states established the initiative to set their own limits and force all fossil fuel plants to buy allowances to cover excess emissions ... In the sealed online auction Thursday, energy, financial and environmental organizations paid $3.07 per ton of excess emissions, and all 12.5 million carbon allowances were sold ... Most of the bidders were power generators.
Both the plan and its results are strikingly close to the national strategy that I recommended in a recent blog. This Northeast initiative is the first of four regional initiatives that intend to implement cap-and-trade regulation. The others are in the West, Midwest and Florida. According to our power plant database at (Carbon Monitoring for Action), the states in these budding cap-and-trade programs account for 35% of carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector. That leaves 65% of US power-sector emissions in states that have declined to participate so far. Participating regions are also reaching out internationally. The Western initiative includes four Canadian provinces: British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba (which has also joined the Midwestern initiative). And on September 26, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California announced that he has invited representatives of the EU, China, India, Australia, Canada and Mexico to a meeting in November, before the next round of international climate talks in Poznan, Poland. Governor Schwarzenegger said, "We know that Washington is asleep at the wheel. We cannot look for leadership there ... We are not waiting for the federal government." Meanwhile, the UN’s Copenhagen conference on climate change draws ever closer. I remain hopeful that the next administration will enact carbon emissions regulation and play a leading role at Copenhagen, as I recommend in CGD’s new publication, The White House and the World: A Global Development Agenda for the Next U.S. President. Indeed, the U.S. Congress is already playing a more active international role. As my colleague Joel Meister wrote yesterday, Congress is pressing the World Bank to be more progressive in managing its Clean Technology Fund, by requiring carbon accounting for all projects and a clear focus on renewable energy technologies. But Congress’ failure to act on domestic carbon emissions indicates an unwillingness to take the medicine that it is prescribing for developing countries. This puts the regional climate initiatives in a different light, and suggests another possible future if the non-participating states continue to cold-shoulder carbon regulation. We can already see the outlines of this future in the Western region’s outreach to other countries. If the next administration fails to enact national cap-and-trade legislation, it is distinctly possible that the regional initiative states will unite, send their own delegation to Copenhagen, and join the international accord without waiting for the recalcitrant states that account for 65% of US power-sector emissions. The latter might suddenly find themselves internationally isolated, and facing the prospect of targeted sanctions in the next global climate regime. I realize that this may seem implausible, because it would be well-nigh unprecedented. But we face a global climate catastrophe, and the stakes couldn’t be higher -- especially for poor people in developing countries, who are already suffering from the impacts of rapid climate change. If the federal government is unable to enact national cap-and-trade regulation, it may only slouch towards Copenhagen. But it may have to share space with another American delegation, representing some two dozen states that are ready to join the global accord.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.