U.S. embraces Copenhagen pact, Senators rework bill

WASHINGTON Thu Jan 28, 2010 6:31pm EST

U.S. Senator John Kerry arrives for a news conference during the UN Climate Change Conference COP15 at the Bella Center in Copenhagen December 16, 2009. REUTERS/Scanpix/Henning Bagger

U.S. Senator John Kerry arrives for a news conference during the UN Climate Change Conference COP15 at the Bella Center in Copenhagen December 16, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Scanpix/Henning Bagger

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama Administration formally embraced the Copenhagen Accord on global warming on Thursday, a day after the president urged a fractious U.S. Congress to get to work on comprehensive legislation to stem the nation's emissions.

U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern gave notice to the United Nations that the country will aim for a 17 percent emissions cut in carbon dioxide and other gases blamed for global warming by 2020, from 2005 levels.

The move, which confirmed the goal set by the White House late last year, was conditional on other countries also submitting their pollution-cutting targets to the accord, Stern said.

The condition was likely aimed at fence-sitters in Congress who do not want to see the United States commit to steps on fighting global warming unless other major polluters like China and India go along.

John Kerry, the Democratic U.S. senator working on a compromise climate bill, insisted that Congress would put a price on carbon, forcing companies to pay for their global warming pollution.

But he followed the lead of President Barack Obama, who called for a comprehensive climate plan during Wednesday's State of the Union speech without mentioning one of its most controversial and complicated elements, cap-and-trade, which would allow companies to trade rights to pollute.

"It's open to how you price carbon," Kerry told Reuters. "People need to relax and look at all the ways you might price carbon. We're not pinned down to one approach."

Kerry, who is working on the bill with Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and independent Senator Joe Lieberman, strongly rejected the idea that progress had bogged down. "I just don't agree with that interpretation at all," he said, adding that Senate negotiations were "making headway."

GOAL DEPENDS ON CONGRESS

The final U.S. 2020 emissions goal depends on Congress passing a climate bill, Stern informed the U.N.

Kerry and others are trying to win Republican and moderate Democratic votes for the bill by including incentives for nuclear power, offshore oil drilling and clean technology jobs. Graham said the nuclear and oil drilling initiatives would not advance in the Senate without dealing with emissions.

The 17 percent U.S. target represents only about a 4 percent cut from the 1990 baseline that other rich polluters are using, showing how difficult it was for the United States to craft a domestic emissions plan.

The European Union reiterated on Wednesday an offer of a 20 percent cut by 2020, from 1990, and a 30 percent cut if other nations deepened their reductions.

The Copenhagen Accord agreed by the United States, China, India and other countries at U.N. talks in December calls for governments to submit climate plans by January 31, 2010.

It does not bind any country to emissions cuts, but it is seen as a step in moving past gridlock over the sharing of the burden of acting on climate change between rich countries and poor ones.

Duncan Marsh, director of international climate policy at the Nature Conservancy, said that with Thursday's announcement, "The United States clearly is signaling its commitment to the global process" for tackling global warming."

The House of Representatives last year passed a climate bill that relied on a cap-and-trade system. But the Senate's push to pass a bill, which might jack up consumers' energy costs, could be harder in this congressional election year as public support has appeared to dip.

A poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press said 28 percent of those surveyed listed global warming as a top priority this year, down from 38 percent in 2007.

A new poll by the Yale Project on Climate Change and George Mason University concluded that fewer people believe global warming is occurring. But it also said more people now fear it could harm their families and future generations.

HYBRID SYSTEM

Kerry said he plans to outline a comprehensive bill that could be considered this spring, although he did not want to be pinned down to a definite deadline. "We are writing and drafting; we're pulling together the titles" of a bill.

Obama acknowledged in his speech that some people doubt the science of climate change but said it was important to move on clean energy such as wind and solar power to compete with countries like China and India in the low-carbon economy.

Graham said that statement and an emphasis on nuclear power could gain support but it was "yet to be determined" if senators could come up with a bill that could pass.

Kevin Book, an analyst at ClearView Energy Partners in Washington, said in a note that Obama "displayed a canny understanding of the political challenges confronting recession-weary, centrist fence-sitters (in Congress)."

"Voters," he wrote, "may be much more likely to embrace a plan to best other nations in trade than a plan to save other nations from rising seas (even if it's the same plan)."

Some environmentalists were angered that Obama was receptive to more oil drilling and nuclear power.

"President Obama's support for all these dirty energy sources was a big win for corporate polluters and their Washington lobbyists, but it was a kick in the gut to environmentalists across the country," said Friends of the Earth President Erich Pica.

In recent days, according to Kerry and Graham, senators have huddled with representatives of energy-intensive industries that would be most affected by government mandating less use of dirty-burning coal and oil.

The bill has been delayed in the Senate by the healthcare debate, as well as opposition from most Republicans and many moderate Democrats.

Graham said cap-and-dividend, which would mandate carbon emission reductions while limiting the trading of pollution permits, is under review along with other options. Under that system, polluters would be required to buy carbon credits in auctions and consumers would receive most proceeds.

A carbon tax has no support in Congress, Graham said.

(Editing by Paul Simao)