The success of the new global climate treaty under negotiation depends on whether the US will seriously commit to cutting its greenhouse gas emissions, according to the head of the jury for the Zayed Future Energy Prize. "The big question is what the USA will be able to bring to the table," said Dr Rajendra Pachauri, explaining that concessions by other big polluters depend on what cuts America commits to. "They have to make up for lost time."
The treaty, expected to be signed at a high-profile meeting in Copenhagen in December, will replace the Kyoto Protocol, which limits emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and five other gases that are released when fossil fuels are burnt to produce energy. The Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. Even though America is one of the world's largest per capita CO2 emitters, it has not been part of international efforts to deal with the problem.
In 1997, the former US president, Bill Clinton, signed the Kyoto Protocol, but the US Senate did not ratify the document, and it was later renounced by his successor, George W Bush, on the grounds that it would have been bad for the US economy. The world is now trying to negotiate an even more ambitious deal amid a global recession, and America's participation is necessary for the success of these efforts, said Dr Pachauri, who is also chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
When the IPCC was named a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for 2007, along with the former US vice president Al Gore, it was Dr Pachauri who accepted the prize on behalf of the organisation. The panel he heads is part of an initiative of the Abu Dhabi Government that awards achievement in renewable energy. Addressing Barack Obama and other heads of state during a climate-change meeting in New York on Tuesday, Dr Pachauri described the US president as "very committed".
In June, the US Congress passed Mr Obama's climate-change bill, which calls for emission cuts of 17 per cent on 2005 levels in 2020. But the document, whose targets are less ambitious than those sought for Copenhagen, has met with serious opposition by the powerful lobbies of the coal and oil sectors, as well as those of industrialised farming and energy-intensive industries. It has yet to be ratified by the US Senate.
Dr Pachauri said that despite these and other hurdles, he was "cautiously optimistic" about the new climate deal. "My feeling is, it would be an agreement that is fairly comprehensive and generally effective," he said. Dr Pachauri urged the UAE, which as a developing country has so far not been required to commit to emissions cuts, to do more to reduce its greenhouse tally. Many of the technologies that can help bring about a low-carbon future already exist. However, they are expensive and this has been preventing their widespread application.
"That is a bit of a chicken or egg problem," he said. He suggested that governments intervene by creating large markets and bring about cost reductions through economies of scale. "Government policy can make a lot of difference," he said. "If governments were to play a role, they can help develop larger markets." Governments could also partner with the private sector to encourage more research and development activities, thus sharing the costs of innovation with industry.
Most governments have been short-sighted in their approach, he said, explaining that the interest in renewable energy in the 1970s, motivated by high oil prices, quickly ended when oil became cheaper. "Once oil prices dropped in 1985, all those resources dried out," he said. "The only example I found of a government that deviates from this is the government of Japan. Their science and technology budget is not reduced even in times of recession."