Cheerless climate change
A sliver of hope came from a modest agreement at climate meetings in Cancun, Mexico, earlier this month, on a more solid multinational commitment to finding ways to cut emissions.
It began with gloom, after the collapse of the Copenhagen climate meetings in December 2009. The mood darkened further as it became clear that cap-and-trade legislation to combat greenhouse gas emissions would not pass the US Congress.
A sliver of hope came from a modest agreement at climate meetings in Cancun, Mexico, earlier this month, on a more solid multinational commitment to finding ways to cut emissions. Another development, bringing perhaps more relief than hope, was the rejection by California voters of an effort, backed by oil companies, to suspend the state's landmark law to combat global warming. The year 2011 may not bring too much improvement, from environmentalists' perspective. Budget deficits and a still-sluggish economy in the United States and elsewhere may complicate investments in cleanenergy technologies. And international negotiators have plenty of tough work ahead, the progress at Cancun notwithstanding. "I'm pessimistic about this international process," said Jurgen Weiss, a principal at Brattle Group, a consulting firm based in Massachusetts. The Cancun agree- ment was not legally binding, so while vows to limit the planet's warming to a modest amount are all very well, Weiss said, it would be "utterly shocking if these things remain more than just words."
Next year, some big milestones are set to be reached. The United States is to begin regulating greenhouse gas emissions for the first time in January. The rules at first will be mild and will apply only to new or expanding big plants. But last week, the US Environmental Protection Agency announced a timetable for issuing rules to control greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and refineries - two major sources of the heat-trapping gases - in 2012. (The EPA also declared last week that it would take over the issuing of greenhouse gas permits for big plants in the one state, Texas, that has made clear its unwillingness to carry out the regulations.)
Among other 2011 developments, international climate talks are scheduled to take place in South Africa late in the year. They are intended to build on the Cancun accords, which spanned a range of good intentions, including assistance from wealthy countries to poorer ones.Indeed, two of the major players in Cancun - China and the United States - will have an opportunity for further discussion on climate, as the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, is scheduled to visit the United States next month.
Much of the focus for 2011, however, is likely to remain on the race to develop a clean-energy economy. The European Union is to begin work on a new "energy savings directive" to help with financing and other issues related to energy efficiency. A proposal from the European Commission is likely to be released in the third quarter of 2011, with additional negotiations and discussions to follow, according to Bendt Bendtsen, a Danish member of the European Parliament and a draftsman of the Parliament's position on energy efficiency. China too is likely to focus on its burgeoning wind and solar sectors.
"With or without international agreements, Asian countries are taking action to promote renewable energy," Yotam Ariel, an independent solar consultant based in Shanghai, said in an e-mail. However, the promotion of renewable energy by China in particular is likely to be a big issue next year in Washington, as US officials continue to scrutinise Chinese cleanenergy exports and potentially complain to the World Trade Organisation about trade practices.
Earlier this month, the administration of President Barack Obama brought a case to the trade group alleging that the Chinese government had illegally subsidised production of wind-turbine equipment; that case was strongly backed by the United Steelworkers, a US labour union.