Currency wars have pushed climate talk even further on the back burner of the G-20 meeting in Seoul, Korea, this week as President Obama and other world leaders spar over the global economic recovery.
Attempts to convince countries to phase out fossil fuel subsidies -- a major goal of last year's summit -- appear at a standstill. Meanwhile, the midterm election that delivered House control to Republicans and gave the GOP a stronger voice in the Senate has created a string of question marks for other nations about the United States' commitment to international climate action.
G-20 leaders have scheduled one mealtime discussion on climate change -- largely at the behest of European leaders, analysts said -- because they were unable to get a formal agenda item on the issue. Alden Meyer, director of policy and strategy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said he expects most of the questions in that exchange to be directed to Obama.
"I would expect leaders to ask Obama face to face at this meeting, 'Are you still behind what you committed to a year ago?'"
Obama vowed at last year's climate change summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, that America will cut its greenhouse gas emissions about 17 percent below 2005 levels in the coming decade and more than 80 percent by midcentury. The United States also promised to help mobilize up to $100 billion annually by 2020 as long as emerging powerhouses like China make good on promises to cut carbon, as well.
But cap-and-trade legislation died in the Senate this year, and the conventional wisdom is that it can't be revived for some years. That leaves regulatory action through U.S. EPA and other agencies as the only other avenue for reducing emissions. Mobilization of money is another challenge. House Republicans have vowed to cut $100 billion from discretionary spending.
The administration, through U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern, has insisted it still stands behind America's Copenhagen promises. It has not, however, laid out a road map explaining how it intends to get there. Meyer and others said the new landscape could have serious implications for how the international climate talks develop at the next major U.N. meeting in Cancun, Mexico, this month.
Talk about extending Kyoto without the U.S.
Up until now, much of the impetus in the international climate negotiations has been aimed at developing a new treaty to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. The first commitment period of that treaty, which calls for emission cuts only from industrialized countries, expires in 2012. But with prospects of the United States' being in a political position to ratify any new treaty dimming, there is starting to be talk in European quarters about once again leaving the United States to sort out its domestic politics and in the meantime extending the Kyoto Protocol.
"These conversations are starting to happen because if you bring down Kyoto in the hopes of something else, that's looking less and less like a strategy," Meyer said. Still, he noted, countries like Canada, Australia and Japan would still need to build on Kyoto with some concessions from major developing nations like China in order to extend it -- another delicate discussion.
Meanwhile, work is moving ahead on the details of the package that negotiators are trying to develop at the next U.N. climate conference.
Luiz Alberto Figueiredo, Brazil's chief climate change negotiator, said he expects a "solid outcome" in Cancun.
"Copenhagen tried to define how the broad picture would operate. In Cancun, what we face is the challenge of how to translate the understandings that we had in Copenhagen into a more action-oriented result," Figueiredo said in a conference call with U.S. reporters.
"We understand that Cancun will not be the end of the road. It is going to be a steppingstone that will allow us to continue the work of perfecting and enhancing the international system for fighting climate change," he said.
A diplomatic samba continues
Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was among the five world leaders along with Obama who negotiated the final version of the Copenhagen Accord. That political agreement recorded the emission pledges of all major emitting countries as well as the complementary promise of mobilizing $100 billion annually by 2020. What role that document should play in the future has been a separate point of contention in the talks.
Figueiredo sidestepped a question about whether he wants to see the Copenhagen Accord form the basis of a new treaty, saying yesterday he hopes "this same spirit of understanding and even the elements of high-level understanding and consensus could be translated into concrete actions."
"Yes," he said, "we hope that this political understanding is not lost and that we can use elements of what was agreed to by those heads of state in government in Copenhagen, that we can use that in drafting the decisions that we are going to take in Cancun."
Jake Schmidt, international policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the key from Cancun will be agreements on issues like transparency, deforestation, technology transfer and financing that lead to some concrete implementation steps.
That, he said, would be "a clear signal that we are going to have a system that looks at robustly what countries are doing over time, and that we're going to have international scrutiny over that."