Monday, 26 January 2009

First signs from Obama on climate change

The Obama administration has signaled intent on climate-related issues within its first week. The New York Times reported this morning that the new President favours allowing states to set their own automobile emission and fuel efficiency standards, which are sometimes higher than federal standards. California and thirteen other states in the United States wish to regulate tailpipe emissions, but their request had been rejected by President Bush. Obama's memorandum to the Environmental Protection Agency to review Bush's order opens up the possibility that more states will take the lead. Obama has also ordered the Department of Transportation to issue new nationwide fuel efficiency standards, raising them from the current 27 miles per gallon to 35 miles per gallon by 2020.

Another idea is that of a 'smart grid', which would use information technology to manage the flow of power through the electricity grid. The objective is to reduce the irregularities associated with renewable energy sources like wind and solar, thereby actually increasing the potential for their use and also cutting transmission losses. Further, 'smart meters' would monitor energy consumption and are expected to reduce household use by 10-15%. The project has the support of Obama's new energy secretary, Nobel laureate Steven Chu.

But Obama is also insisting on action by India and China. While saying that 'America is ready to lead' he also warned that 'we will ensure that nations like China and India are doing their part.'

India has its own complaints, particularly the unwillingness of rich countries to commit more money to help developing countries adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change. As India's negotiator, Prodipto Ghosh, put it, 'Obama's announcement of US$15 billion a year - for ten years - is significant but is probably far from enough.'

Here lies the real tension. For rich countries, climate change action means the reduction of emissions globally. For poor countries, the responsibility of causing global warming lies with rich countries who should also bear the burden of financial transfers, technology transfers and accelerated action on adapation. As I've written before, these tensions raise many governance questions. Despite Obama's initial signals, 2009 is not going to be an easy road for climate negotiations.

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