The December Copenhagen conference is shaping up to be something less than the history-making event its organizers intended. Gone is the expectation that participants will extend and expand the provisions of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Instead, it is looking more like a typical global warming meeting where delegates agree to little more than to try again the next time. If this turns out to be the case, it would be a good thing. The Kyoto approach is a failure that should be killed rather than prolonged. And delay into 2010 could prove deadly for a policy that will only look worse as time goes on.
The provisions of the Kyoto Protocol expire in 2012, and those who wanted tough post-2012 greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets have long identified Copenhagen 2009 as the time and place to do so. Kyoto proponents, both in the U.S. and around the world, were particularly encouraged by the election of President Obama, who they felt was the antithesis of Bush on this issue. Many predicted that America's decision to stay out of Kyoto would be reversed in Copenhagen.
But lately the Obama administration has sounded an awful lot like the Bush administration on this issue. For example, both have acknowledged that the Kyoto track record is not good - many European and other developed nation signatories are failing to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions. The reason for Kyoto's failure is simple - reducing emissions is proving to be prohibitively expensive, and that won't change any time soon.
The Obama administration has also echoed its predecessor in recognizing that a post-Kyoto treaty that continues to exempt China, India, and other fast developing nations is futile. Those nations will account for most of the emissions growth in the years ahead. But the developing world insists on maintaining these exemptions, creating a rift unlikely to go away.
Overall, it turns out that the main obstacle to a Kyoto II was not Bush, but underlying economic and political realities. Those realities persist and need to be emphasized as the debate drags on.
Kicking the can down the road -- which is also happening for Senate legislation that similarly caps emissions - could spell trouble for this problematic policy. In addition to economic and political realities, the scientific reality that global warming is not a crisis is rapidly replacing the hype that fueled the Kyoto conferees. The fact that temperatures have remained flat since the 1997 accord deflates the sense of urgency that prevailed then.
Major action has been delayed until 2010, an election year. A Pew poll found that, when asked to prioritize 20 issues facing the nation, respondents ranked global warming dead last. The economy ranked number one. Finalizing either a treaty or domestic legislation to (ineffectively) address number 20 at the expense of number one is not going to be easy in an election year -- and rightly so. Proponents will no doubt try their best to advance carbon controls, but this issue may have turned a corner.
Ben Lieberman is a senior policy analyst in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First Appeared in The Washington Post