What’s the deal with the US?

The United States of America have entered the negotiations at COP21 with a lot of baggage- on one hand, they are one of the worst polluters on the planet , while on the other hand they have seemingly changed their approach to climate change and signed a historic agreement with China pledging to drastically reduce carbon emissions. Obama’s speech at the beginning of the conference outlined the goals of the US: to achieve a treaty that’s legally binding to a certain extent, but not too much because it would have no chance of passing in the Republican-controlled Congress.

Many see the United States as a villain- one that speaks pretty words promising hard work and finances with no intention of changing their ways. Others see the States as a climate leader, with the resources and opportunities to bring about change in the world. Which one is it?

The chief climate negotiator on the side of the US, Todd Stern, has plenty of experience with both successes and failures, having been largely involved with the signing of the US-China agreement in November last year. His stance seems to be compatible in principle with the general idea- that climate change needs to be dealt with immediately. However, he seems to dislike the ideals brought by the Kyoto Protocol- that the developed countries should be mostly responsible for financing mitigation and adaptation. Instead, he’d like to see a voluntary system, were peer pressure (and diplomatic one) influences countries into cutting emissions.

A large problem that the US is faced with is the obvious polarity of their political scene- with Obama, on the democratic side, showing a willingness to cooperate and deal with climate change, and the republican-dominated Congress sometimes even refusing to recognize climate change as a pressing issue. Thus, while Obama’s speech seems ambitious and sets goals that would cut emissions and prevent the rise of temperatures above 2 degrees Celsius, his home front is faced with Republican senators that  oppose any limit on greenhouse gasses.

Realistically, many of the negotiations will boil down to funding. Although Copenhagen ended with a pledge for 100 billion dollars of funding, per year, until 2020 to address the needs of developing countries when it comes to mitigation and adaptation, many of the negotiators feel there just isn’t enough being given away. India’s Ajay Mathur, for example, wants to push for legally binding financing allocated from public funds and not only private investments.

“Finance is the easiest thing. All you have to do is write a check.”

The United States is divided when it comes to the issue of financing. Mr. Stern, the negotiator, has pushed towards most investments coming from the private sector, and it’s unclear whether the US would support taxpayer dollars being allocated towards climate change mitigation.

At this point, with about a week until the end, it is unclear how much of the draft agreement published on Saturday night will be kept, changed and improved. The United States is under a lot of pressure from its own political scene, from international diplomacy and from civil society around the world. Just this morning, at a climate justice meeting in the “Green Zone” of COP21, one angry climate activist called the US “the biggest villain”. A delegate from Burkina Faso that we met, however, did admit that almost everything depends on the willingness the US shows in the negotiations.

Thus, we’ll need to wait a week and see the outcome of the negotiations in order to come to a concrete conclusion of what the US has managed to achieve.

[Picture taken from this Guardian article]

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