Romney campaign stirs climate unease in Brussels

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EU officials are privately alarmed at the chilling effect that a Mitt Romney win in the US presidential election could have on global climate talks, EURACTIV has learned.

Although the Republican candidate is trailing President Barack Obama in the polls, his oft-stated doubts about a link between greenhouse gas emissions and climate change have led to “concern” at cabinet level, one source said.

Speaking last October, Romney said: “My view is that we don’t know what is causing climate change on this planet and the idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try and reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us.”

Last month, he appeared to backtrack slightly, saying that he believed human activity could be contributing to a warming world in an online debate. But Romney then cited “a lack of scientific consensus on the issue” as reason to prioritise further research, rather than action.

“It will be a completely different way of looking at climate change if he is elected,” one senior EU official told EURACTIV. “It will change the conversation, definitely”

The official suggested that Brussels would wait to see Romney’s appointments to senior posts before drawing up plans, but said that US policy on Canada's highly polluting tar sands, and China could change.

The strong anti-Emissions Trading System (ETS) position adopted unanimously by the US Senate last week, though, is unlikely to be amended whoever wins the election. 

ETS crisis looming

Washington apparently believes that a crisis is looming unless the EU delays charging international airlines for their carbon dioxide emissions beyond the current 30 April 2013 start date.

The US, which says it wants a global deal on aviation emissions instead, sees no possibility of brokering an alternative  package before then at the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

But EURACTIV understands that the US has no plans to authorise the non-compliance of its air fleet with the EU’s carbon trading scheme until India and China – which have both authorised non-compliance – reveal the content and timing of their positions.

Nigel Purvis, an advisor to the US’s chief Kyoto negotiator in 1998, said that as a president, Romney “would probably have less of an interest in reaching a global agreement [at ICAO] that genuinely reduces emissions in an ambitious kind of way”. 

Purvis is the founder and president of the Climate Advisers consultancy.

Climate talks

Under a Romney presidency, there would also be “an enormous change in the level of urgency and attention,” given to negotiations for a successor deal to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires at the end of this year, Purvis told EURACTIV.

“Romney is not prepared to do anything which has any political cost,” he added.

An EU official told EURACTIV that he expected climate talks would “become much harder again” under a Romney administration, while EU-US relations on climate issues would become “quite challenging”. 

“It would make [climate negotiations] more of an uphill struggle than they are now,” another EU source said.

“The first thing [Romney] would do would be to fire [US climate chief negotiator] Todd Stern and find someone with his own climate change agenda because Todd Stern has some knowledge about this issue,” the source speculated.

International climate fire

Stern himself drew international climate fire last month, when he appeared to speak out in favour of ditching the US’s previous commitment to the international goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees centigrade. 

Senior US negotiator Jonathan Pershing followed this with a call for a “flexible” and “dynamic” new treaty to replace Kyoto. But EURACTIV has learned that these interventions were nominally intended to open debate about a bottom-up ‘Sinatra Doctrine’ style-approach to climate pledges in which different countries would do emissions reductions their own way.

Critics say that by removing binding emissions reduction targets, such a doctrine would effectively prevent any targets – including the 2 degrees one – being met, with potentially grave consequences.

The Obama administration is currently pledged to make a 17% cut on its 2005 emissions level by 2020, a long way from the reductions imagined under the Kyoto Protocol which the US failed to ratify.

Fears abound that even this target would quickly fall by the wayside under a Romney administration.

Romney’s pledges

Romney has pledged to:

  • Open the entire US coastline to oil drilling
  • Slash environmental regulations and reviews so as to ‘streamline’ permitting procedures
  • Build a contested Keystone XL Pipeline to bring tar sands from Canada to the US
  • Turn over energy development decisions on federal lands to the states
  • Pursue a North American energy partnership with Canada and Mexico

Thomas Legge, a senior climate and energy officer at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said that the radicalism of Romney's party – as well as his climate change statements and campaign funding – would make it difficult for him to govern from the centre.

Romney received over $2 million in campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry in 2011-12 alone, more than any other presidential candidate, according to

“The role of campaign funding is enormous and in the long term will either provide a brake or a release to the US political system,” Legge told EURACTIV.

The Republicans' current opposition to cap-and-trade schemes they themselves first proposed was “an aberration in history” he said.

“I don’t think either candidate wants to make a big deal out of climate change because they don’t see it as vote-winning issue,” he added.

Public opinion

It is debatable how much public support there is for ignoring global warming. One recent poll by the Yale Project on Climate Change found that climate change should be a moderate, high, or very high priority for the president and congress.

But the same survey discovered that 61% of Americans were cautious, disengaged, doubtful, or dismissive about global warming, while media interest in the subject has collapsed.

According to Purvis and Legge, the most important figures are those for long term structural US emissions reductions which are unlikely to be affected by the election.

“There are factors driving down greenhouse gas emissions reductions in to an extraordinary extent similar to the UK’s switch from coal to gas in the 80s and 90s,” Legge said.

These include the trend to gas – particularly shale gas – along with clean air regulations and a new fuel efficiency drive, which together knocked US CO2 emissions down 1.7% in 2011.   

Impressive as such reductions may be, with global carbon emissions continuing to rise, they are unlikely to contain global warming whichever candidate wins in November.

Greeting the figures in April, the IEA Chief Economist Fatih Birol said: “The new data provide further evidence that the door to a 2°C trajectory is about to close”.

The scientific consensus that humans are responsible for global warming is now compelling with over 90% probability, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a UN-backed scientific body. Some 97%-98% of the world's scientists think it is "very likely" that global warming is caused by man-made activities, according to a survey published in the National Academy of Sciences in 2009.

Climate science has evolved greatly since the 1970s and models take into account carbon dioxide concentrations, solar radiation, land surface, ice sheet cover (and reflectivity), deserts (which also reflect radiation), forests (which absorb  CO2), ocean currents, and more.

But uncertainties remain surrounding the extent of future temperature rises and the effects they will have on the Earth’s complex ecosystem. In large part, these will depend on measures taken now to keep greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere below 450 parts per million of CO2 equivalent.

  • 6 November 2012: US elections take place
  • 26 November-7 December 2012: UNFCCC Doha Climate Change Summit
  • March 2013: ICAO secretariat expected to present a draft proposal on a global emissions scheme based on recommendations made by ICAO experts in June 2012.
  • 30 April 2013: International airlines to be charged for pollution permits under the EU ETS
  • October 2013: Next regular meeting of the ICAO Council.
  • 2015: UNFCCC nations slated to agree a successor deal to Kyoto
  • 2020: New Climate treaty due to come into effect

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