President Obama's election to a second term means America can "push the reset button" on the turbulent U.N. climate change negotiations, World Resources Institute President Andrew Steer said yesterday.

Steer, who served as the World Bank's climate change envoy before joining WRI in August, said it is time for the administration to show "real leadership" on climate change. Others called on U.S. diplomats to embrace the goal of keeping global average temperatures below a 2 degrees Celsius rise over preindustrial levels and to show how they intend to cut carbon at home.

"I think history will judge any president from now onwards not to have succeeded if he doesn't really grapple with this issue seriously," Steer said. "We really have an opportunity now to push the reset button with regards to the negotiations."

Diplomats from 192 countries will meet later this month in Doha, Qatar, for the 18th annual conference of the parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, otherwise known as COP18. Expectations have been low -- aimed mostly at filling in the blanks of a still-ambiguous agreement made in Durban, South Africa, last year to develop a legally binding emissions agreement among all nations by 2015 to go into effect by 2020.

The U.S. presidential election, however, has heightened hopes for a more decisive embrace of a global climate treaty and perhaps even more ambitious carbon reduction targets from major emitters.

'Your legacy' at stake
In an open letter to Obama last week, Pa Ousman Jarju, the lead negotiator for the world's poorest nations, said the president has not lived up to the promise of becoming an international leader on climate change. He noted the pledges that nations made in Copenhagen, Denmark, largely at Obama's behest, do not add up to cuts that will avert catastrophic warming.

"This year's meeting in Qatar may be our last chance to put forward a new vision and plan to reverse this course," Jarju wrote. "Your legacy and the future of our children and grandchildren depend on it."

He, like other environmentalists, called on the United States to pump up the pledge Obama made at the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit to cut America's carbon output 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Many nations consider that a weak pledge, because the United States is the world's biggest historical emitter, but also argue the country isn't even moving on that target.

"There are two levels of what the U.S. could offer in Doha. The first is high-level, to recommit itself to the 2-degree target. I think that particularly after the Dartmouth speech that came out this summer by Todd Stern, there have been some questions about the U.S. commitment to that goal," said Jennifer Morgan, climate and energy director for WRI.

Stern in his speech called for a "flexible, evolving legal agreement" that might not guarantee a 2-degree goal, saying, "Insisting on a structure that would guarantee such a goal will only lead to deadlock." He later clarified his comments, maintaining the United States supports the 2-degree goal, but many diplomats and environmentalists say the comment left lingering doubts.

Meanwhile, Morgan said, the Obama administration needs to show countries how it plans to use executive authority to meet, and possibly beat, its 17 percent target. "One would hope that the Obama team comes refreshed with a new strategy," she said.

Paul Bledsoe, an independent policy consultant and former Clinton White House energy official, said the United States deserves credit for driving what has become a "pledge-and-review" approach to cutting carbon that differs from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, in which emissions targets were divided up among wealthy nations in the attempt to reach a goal of a 5.2 percent global emissions cut.

U.S. can show emissions cuts on track
Meanwhile, he said, the United States actually has a strong story to tell about domestic emissions. A recent study found the country is on target to meet the 17 percent goal, in part because of the recession and rise of natural gas, but also because of energy efficiency measures imposed by the Obama administration (ClimateWire, Oct. 24).

"This is very important because the harder the line the president takes vis-à-vis China and India, the more political leeway he will have at home to reduce emissions," Bledsoe said.

But he also argued that no international treaty can come together until after the United States prices or caps its own domestic emissions -- and any expectations otherwise are both unrealistic and counterproductive.

"Do we really believe that China and India will take binding targets? Why are we negotiating a treaty that has no chance of passing the U.S. Senate? Why are we wasting time with that? The entire process has this embedded lack of credibility," Bledsoe said. He said U.S. diplomats should "take on the legally binding obsession and say, 'We'll go ahead and negotiate, but we have to be clear and say we don't believe this is the way forward.'"

Stephen Eule, vice president for climate and technology at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, agreed with the futility of negotiating a legally binding agreement and said the focus should be on lowering the price of renewable and alternative energy.

"The fundamentals still haven't changed. It's still going to be very difficult to get an agreement," Eule said. "The process is at a point at which I can't see any binding agreement getting out of the U.N. that would get 67 votes in the Senate, so it's still challenging. We had an election here, but they didn't have one in China, they didn't have one in India, they didn't have one in Brazil."

Eule argued that despite the Durban agreement that ostensibly calls for all emitters to become legally bound to cut carbon by 2020, major economies will find a way to wiggle out of that commitment.

"People try to make this more complicated than it really is. The fact is that alternative energy sources are more expensive than traditional energy sources. The key is to lower the price of alternatives," Eule said. "We have to lower our sights and get a little bit more realistic about what's going on in the world. Everyone wants a grand bargain in the international negotiations, but that's still many years away."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500