Grist's coverage of Copenhagen climate talks

The 15th United Nations climate summit has just ended in Copenhagen after a tense two weeks of negotiations between the developed and developing world. An “environmental Woodstock” to some, a high stakes diplomatic showdown to others, the meeting led to some critical but incomplete agreements.

Now that it’s over, the world’s attention will focus on the United States Senate as it plans to consider clean energy and global warming legislation in 2010. The newly inked Copenhagen Accord, along with other factors, increases the odds for Senate passage of clean energy jobs and global warming legislation.

The Copenhagen Accord should form the basis for future negotiations that hope to culminate in an international agreement to reduce global warming pollution in levels sufficient enough to prevent a 2 degree C (3.6 F) warming. The Accord should also contribute to passage of a Senate clean energy and global warming bill. The Accord includes two provisions that address some undecided senators’ concerns about pollution reductions from China and India. In advance of the summit, these two nations made their first commitment to reduce the rate of pollution compared to their economies. Obviously, these two emerging economic powers could do more to reduce the rapidly rising emissions, but these levels of reductions are a good start.

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The Accord also includes an agreement by China and other developing countries to report on their voluntary actions to reduce pollution. These reports would be subject to “international consultations and analysis,” which would provide more certainty about whether developing nations are fulfilling their voluntary pledges to reduce their pollution rates. President Obama secured this big concession from China, which is notable due to its notoriously opaque government.

Although the Accord is not yet binding, this agreement should quell some senators’ uncertainty about China, India, and other developing nations’ level and transparency of pollution reductions. These concerns have been a major reason that some senators from Midwestern states were reluctant to support domestic global warming legislation. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), sponsor of the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act, noted that the Accord “sets the stage for a final deal and for Senate passage this spring of major legislation at home.”

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In the wake of the Copenhagen Accord, there are several other factors that should also provide impetuous for clean energy legislation in 2010. Establishment of a global warming pollution reduction program would be a boost to the depressed economy. Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman noted that such legislation would have the “same economic effects as a major technological innovation: It would give businesses a reason to invest in new equipment and facilities … And given the current state of the economy, that’s just what the doctor ordered.”

Sign Up for More News from GristIn 2010, President Obama’s number one priority will be lifting the unemployment woes that began before he took office. Since the first days of his administration, an important element of his economic recovery plans included the transition to a clean energy economy. Vice President Joe Biden estimates that the clean energy programs in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act would create nearly 900,000 jobs. On Dec. 9, President Obama proposed a program to create jobs via incentives for residential building energy efficiency retrofits. He will continue to advocate clean energy legislation to restore American energy competitiveness, which was ceded to China and Germany due to disregard for clean energy technologies under President George W. Bush Clean. And energy legislation should be a prominent part of the 2010 effort to create more jobs and restore American competitiveness.

As nations’ economies recover, their demand for oil will recover and oil prices will rise.  The Energy Information Administration “Annual Energy Outlook 2010” predicts that oil prices will rise from $75 per barrel in 2010 to $100 per barrel in 2015.  This prediction may be very conservative.  Noted oilman T. Boone Pickens predicted in October that consumers may face “$90 before the end of 2010.”  Higher oil prices should increase the imperative to adopt comprehensive clean energy legislation that would reduce oil use and increase American energy independence.

On Dec. 15, the Environmental Protection Action issued the long awaited “endangerment finding” under the Clean Air Act that says greenhouse gas pollution threatens public health. This finding comes two and half years after the Supreme Court ruled in Massachusetts v. EPA that the agency has the obligation to assess whether greenhouse gases endanger public health, and if so, to take steps to reduce this pollution. The endangerment finding is the first step before EPA can set limits on pollution from major (25,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually) emitters. In March, EPA expects to issue limits on greenhouse gases from cars, with limits for other industries to follow.

President Obama, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, and many in Congress believe that Congress, and not EPA, should set greenhouse gas pollution limits. Legislation can include other policies that would reduce pollution — such as incentives for renewable electricity or energy efficiency — that EPA lacks the authority to implement. In addition, Congress can design a pollution reduction system that provides a relatively smooth economic transition for consumers and workers. EPA’s authority to set pollution limits for major polluters is a sword of Damocles hanging over the Senate should it fail to act.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Ark.) and other opponents of global warming solutions would like to block EPA’s ability to set pollution limits. She has introduced a resolution to invoke the Congressional Review Act that would stop EPA from enforcing the law as ordered by the Supreme Court. To succeed, her resolution must pass the Senate and House, and President Obama must sign it too, or Congress must override his veto with a two-thirds vote in each body. Given this procedure, the prospects for Murkowski’s success are small. This means that Congress must act to cut greenhouse pollution or EPA will despite administration and legislative preference for Congressional action.

Final passage of health care reform should also provide a boost to clean energy legislation. Health care reform has dominated Senate attention for the past six months. Completion of the reform bill should free up the “band width” necessary to address clean energy legislation. Health care success would also demonstrate that Congress is capable of addressing big pressing challenges. Success should also replenish President Obama’s political capital that he expended to pass health care. He will need to invest this capital to achieve Senate passage of clean energy legislation.

Public opinion remains very supportive of action on global warming despite relentless attacks from a $100 million campaign by Big Oil and other energy special interests. The Dec. 18 Washington Post-ABC News poll found that nearly two-thirds of Americans believe that the United States should “regulate the release of greenhouse gases from sources like power plants, cars, and factories in an effort to reduce global warming.” And the intensity favors those who strongly support action versus those who strongly oppose it — 50 percent to 20 percent.

The bottom line is that there are a number of recent factors that significantly boost prospects for clean energy jobs and global warming legislation in 2010. President Obama’s international and domestic leadership, the Copenhagen Accord, the need for jobs, EPA’s enforcement of the Clean Air Act, completion of health care, and the public’s support for reform are all factors that should improve prospects for Senate legislation in 2010. President Obama is like a wily gambler who has been dealt some very good political cards. By playing these cards right, he can parlay this hand into big winnings for all Americans.