The proverb about an elephant laboring mightily and bringing forth a mouse comes to mind …
But the fact is that when the U.S. Senate gave up last week on trying to pass even a stripped-down, no-climate-stuff kind of energy bill, in the end there wasn’t even a mouse to show for it.
This is a bitter pill to swallow for almost anyone who cares that the best scientists we’ve got tell us we’re quickly running out of time to head off the worst impacts of a warming planet. But it’s a particular disappointment for our European neighbors.
“Well, it’s certainly not reassuring for us.”
That’s Malachy Hargadon, with the European Commission’s Directorate General for Climate Action. Hargadon told me that Europe had really been hoping the Americans would finally step up to the plate.
“Everybody has been looking to the US and to the Senate in particular … (We hoped) a bill would come and it would be a comprehensive, economy-wide bill that would have at its heart a cap-and-trade system. And the fact that that’s not going ahead at this time is not reassuring and it’s going to be a knock for the international negotiations.”
(As I write this, climate negotiations are wrapping up in Bonn, and reports are not encouraging. In a replay of Copenhagen last December, developing economies are demanding that the developed world make deeper cuts in their carbon emissions and cough up many billions of dollars to help the have-nots make the shift to a post-carbon economy. There’s one more of these negotiator-level meetings planned, in China in October, before the big boys all show up in Cancun at the end of the year to take another shot at a comprehensive international agreement.)
When I was in Brussels last summer, business representatives told me they’re fully on board with the EU’s greenhouse gas reduction program. But they expressed concerns that it put them at a competitive disadvantage.
“If you make one ton of steel, you produce about one ton of CO2,” Folker Franz told me. Franz is with BusinessEurope, the European equivalent of the US Chamber of Commerce. “Right now, the price of carbon is about $17 per ton. So, one ton of steel produced in the EU is $17 more expensive than a ton of steel from somewhere else, and that makes a difference.”
I tried last week to get a hold of Franz for an update, but he’d already headed out of town for the August break. He did e-mail me his take on the death of the Senate climate bill.
“The developments in the US Congress are of course horrible news for an international climate agreement any time soon. I think we all need to take a deep breath now and rethink strategies on how to move towards a low-carbon world. First step in my view: focus less on absolute emission caps but more on technology R&D and on energy efficiency.”
I asked Malachy Hargadon if European businesses were getting nervous about getting out on a limb with a cap-and-trade system, if it was beginning to look as if no one else was going to join them there.
“Not in a way that our medium and long-term goals are in any way brought into question,” he said. “Business is fully on board over here … They know we are all in this together and that we’re trying to provide them with the certainty that they want (so) that they can develop their businesses in the medium term, as well.”
In the wake of the Senate’s failure to act, there’s been a flurry of speculation in the news about the initiative shifting back to state and regional efforts such as the Western Climate Initiative (I wrote one of these myself). I asked Hargadon what the EU thought of that approach.
“Well, it’s probably something that can work,” he said. “Every little part has a part to play” But, he said, “It’s certainly not a complete substitute for an economy-wide system, which is what we have. ”
He said the EU sees a US-wide cap-and-trade system as linking with the European system and forming trans-Atlantic setup that ultimately could become the backbone of a global carbon market.
Hargadon said it’s too early to give up on Congress, and while the regional efforts can’t carry the weight a federal carbon market could, he said, “It’s certainly good to have that kind of pressure coming up from below.”
He’s probably right. But unless something substantive comes out of Washington DC before the end of the year, I’m looking for things to hot up a bit in the Northwest with the Western Climate Initiative trying to step into the vacuum left by the feds.