Ana Carolina Lessa Staff Writer December 5, 2009

While the United States Congress debates climate change legislation and President Barack Obama urges the country to cut 17 percent of emissions by 2020, world leaders gear up for the U.N. climate change negotiations in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The conference, dubbed “COP-15,” opens December 7th and continues to the 18th.

However, despite the administration’s announcement of carbon emissions cuts, the deeply divided U.S. Senate is nowhere close to finding middle ground on a climate change bill. While this stalemate continues, policymakers stress the need to get binding, verifiable emissions reduction commitments from emerging economies, such as China and India. According to U.S. lawmakers, the country should not consent to cuts unless other major emitters agree to ambitious and quantifiable reductions.

India, a top emitter, announced its position earlier this week, stating that the country would decrease greenhouse gas emissions growth by 2020. They have also stated their openness to take bolder steps if a reasonable deal is achieved during COP-15.

India has joined the club along with the United States, China, Brazil, Indonesia, and South Africa to make domestic emissions promises before the Copenhagen talks. Similar to the Chinese position, India’s proposal is more focused on improving energy efficiency rather than establishing binding emission limits. Also, India’s emissions can rise, even if at a slower rate than gross domestic product growth (GDP).

India’s new position is a significant shift for the country, which until recently had insisted that richer nations should agree to carbon cuts instead of putting the impetus on emerging countries with less developed economies.

In the midst of carbon cutting promises, many critics stress that governments around the world could make faster, more substantial and cheaper cuts to carbon emissions by pursuing energy efficiency instead of ambitious and expensive technological solutions. More energy-efficient cars, lighting and buildings could be an easier solution. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for example, could stop postponing a decision to boost the amount of ethanol blended into gasoline. This holdup not only means delaying the creation of thousands of new green jobs, but also hampers increasing energy security while reducing the country’s emissions.

Many analysts have called India’s plan weak compared to the announcements made by the United States and China. Some even say it was nothing more than a restatement of the old policy.

The Australian government, on the other hand, introduced an audacious carbon-trading program in Parliament. If this passes, it could mean the biggest economic policy change in the country’s history and help garner support for action from other countries.

Brazil has also been pushing hard for the Copenhagen conference to succeed. Once internationally criticized as a top carbon-emitting country because of deforestation and burning in the Amazon, Brazil has stepped up to play a leading role in global climate discussions. Currently, the country has one of the cleanest energy matrixes in the world, with over 40 percent of its makeup originating from renewable sources and has the most productive and sustainable planted forests, which absorb around 63 million tons of carbon per year. The efforts do not stop there. The Brazilian government has also committed to bold emission reduction goals and established plans to control further deforestation.

A week before COP-15, developing countries have vowed to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. The world’s greatest emitters have responded, making their own proposals before the deadline. Some are prepared to bring numbers to the negotiating table. However, beyond climate proposals to reduce greenhouse gasses lies the important issue of how to pay for new initiatives. Disagreements over climate financing show the difficulty of reaching a comprehensive agreement.

One final spoiler is international trade law. Protection measures for domestic manufacturers that seep into climate change legislation might be ruled discriminatory, according to the World Trade Organization (WTO). The WTO’s General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) does include a general exemption that allows nations to limit trade to preserve natural resources. However, that exception, commonly referred to as Article XX, establishes a waiver for environmental – not competitive – reasons. This would require that legislation, imposing costs on imports, would have to be drafted to demonstrate that it promotes environmental protection rather than help domestic companies compete.

There are 98 world leaders attending the Copenhagen summit this week. Will that increase chances of reaching an agreement, or will Copenhagen fail, like Kyoto did 12 years ago?