Forecast for Copenhagen: Cloudy with a Large Chance of Nothing

The big UN climate conference at Copenhagen is supposed to produce a new schedule for greenhouse gas emissions reductions, as the 1997 Kyoto Protocol ends in 2012. 

In fact, Copenhagen in 2009 is beginning to look a lot like Kyoto in 1997.  Back then, the two-week conference was “deadlocked” as it drew to a close, with a major split between the United States and Europe.  President Clinton had committed the U.S. to a relatively innocuous target of holding U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide constant, while the EU wanted much more costly reductions. 

Vice President Gore jetted in near the end of the scheduled conference, and instructed the U.S. negotiators to be “more flexible.” The meeting was extended for days, and suddenly we agreed to reduce our CO2 emissions seven percent below 1990 levels from 2008 to 2012.  For the record, we’re currently emitting about 17 percent above 1990 levels, though that number may drop a couple of percentage points in 2009 due to the recent economic malaise.

The fact that emissions and economic growth are highly correlated wasn’t lost on the Senate, which never ratified Kyoto.

This time around, President Obama will descend upon Copenhagen on the conference’s last scheduled day, December 18.  He’ll be plenty flexible, which is pretty easy to do when nothing you say legally commits the U.S. to anything.  That’s because what comes out of Denmark will either be an extension of Kyoto (not ratified), or a new protocol (with no hope of garnering the 67 Senate votes needed for ratification).

Nonetheless there will be a great pronouncement whenever Copenhagen ends.  The betting is that the Chinese and the Indians, who have steadfastly refused to agree to reduce their overall emissions, will agree to some vague targets thanks to a bribe courtesy of U.S. taxpayers.  Of course, that agreement will be contingent upon them actually getting the loot, which seems pretty unlikely given the upcoming election.

So, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The UN is going to announce a breakthrough, world-saving agreement with no real buy-in from the Chinese and Indians and no chance of approval by our Senate.