The U.N. conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, is supposed to agree the replacement of the Kyoto Protocol and restrain carbon dioxide emissions. The Europeans are already committed to 20 percent reductions by 2020 and up to 80 percent reductions by 2050.
Hopes were initially high in Europe that the United States under President Obama's leadership would display similar resolve to tackle climate change. But the steady erosion of Obama's opinion poll ratings and the setbacks to his signature health reform plans have dismayed Europeans who fear that his political capital may no longer be sufficient to win major climate-change legislation in Congress.
The death of Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts has removed one certain vote for the current cap-and-trade bill, and under state law he is unlikely to be replaced in the U.S. Senate until March 2009. Environmental lobbyists currently reckon that 34 senators are committed to backing the bill, 28 have said they will oppose it and the 38 remaining are undecided.
The Europeans fear that developing countries like China and India will only join an international agreement if the United States and Europe can together make a firm commitment. The chances of securing a climate treaty now hinge on the U.S. Senate deliberations on the current Waxman-Markey bill to cap and trade carbon emissions, top EU officials say.
"I know for the American Senate it's absolutely crucial to know that China will sign the treaty," says Sweden's environment minister, Andreas Carlgren, whose country currently holds the European Union's rotating presidency. "I understand that. We fully support that. We have the same expectations."
"The Senate is still deciding on cap and trade," Carlgren told reporters at the Swedish Embassy on his last Washington visit. "If the Senate would pass it, there would be no reason for China not to sign up."
China has long argued that it is for the developed nations who built up the carbon levels over the past century or more to make the sacrifices involved in cutting emissions, rather than poorer developing countries. But Beijing has recently begun to signal its readiness to make some commitments, or at least to start the bargaining process.
China has already dropped its previous demand that all developed countries commit to 40 percent cuts in carbon emissions by 2020 and now accepts that any "concrete figure has to be decided by the negotiations; we will get a result in Copenhagen."
China's Academy of Sciences, an official body, has issued a report saying that China should be prepared to commit to start carbon reductions after emissions peak sometime before 2030. A standing committee of the National People's Congress, China's legislature, has passed a resolution on "actively dealing with climate change" by considering new laws and strengthening emissions controls.
China's current five-year plan includes energy efficiency and renewable energy targets in the world, and its next five-year plan, currently being drafted, is expected to go much further. China's State Council, led by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, has decreed that climate change be included in "the medium and long-term development strategies and plans of government at every level." Sun Qin, vice chief of the National Energy Administration, has declared that a comprehensive new strategy for low-carbon energy development will be issued by the end of this year.
China recently joined 15 other major emitting countries at the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate in Italy in a commitment to peak global and national emissions "as soon as possible." This was then echoed by China's climate change envoy, Yu Qingtai, who declared, "There is no one in the world who is more keen than us to see China reach its emissions peak as early as possible."
The concept of "peak emissions," after which China would commit to firm reductions, is Beijing's new negotiating strategy. On the one hand, it would allow China to pursue its policy of breakneck economic growth and increasing carbon emissions, even though China has now overtaken the United States as the world's top emitter. On the other hand, it accepts both the principle of reducing emissions and accepts that Beijing shares the global responsibility to tackle climate change. China's current unofficial proposal of a peak by 2030 is seen as no more than an opening bid in a tough negotiation.
India, however, has yet to go even that far. As the second of the major developing nations to play a key role at Copenhagen, New Delhi's stance will be crucial. India's environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, insists that he wants an agreement in Copenhagen but firmly rejects any binding targets for developing countries like India and insists that developed nations should reduce emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels.
After the visit to India by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Ramesh said that India's development needs mean that the Indian government sees the country's emissions rising from 1 ton of carbon dioxide per head to "three or four" by 2030 -- which would make India a top polluter.
"You in the West need to live with only one car rather than three. For you it is about luxury, for us survival," Ramesh said. "Once developed countries have shown demonstrable proof of their seriousness then India can think of going to next stage. At a time when every (rich) country is in violation of the Kyoto Protocol obligation to ask China and India to take on legal targets smacks of hypocrisy."