Everybody, it seems, wants to save the world from a future climate Armageddon, yet realistically only two people can: US president Obama and China’s president Hu Jintao. Much as the occasionally arrogant EU believes its ‘first mover advantage’ gives it the right to actively influence a trilateral climate initiative it is the bilateral relationship between the US and China that is key, and at last month’s UN hosted climate talks in New York the initiative was firmly grasped by China as the US desperately tried to maintain some control while ensuring it did not promise what it cannot deliver. And what it seemingly cannot deliver before the Copenhagen talks in December is the American Clean Energy and Security Act, more popularly known as the Waxman-Markey climate and energy bill.

One of the unwritten rules of politics is not to promise what cannot be delivered. When Obama was inaugurated as president on 20 January he promised the world that the US would take the lead in delivering a new global climate agreement at the (upcoming) Copenhagen conference. And he can proudly rattle off a series of energy and climate accomplishments from the eight months since he entered office, including the largest ever investment in renewable energy, spending billions on cutting energy waste, tightening fuel emissions from cars and promising to work with other countries to cut fossil fuel

subsidies. But even allowing for what the media has enthused over as ‘unprecedented climate progress’ Obama is no closer to delivering on his inauguration promise.

Reaching agreement on a successor treaty to Kyoto, which expires on 31 December 2012, should not be a game, yet as the days countdown to Copenhagen the interaction between the main players is beginning to resemble a climate version of Monopoly with climate legacies empowered by ‘passing go’ while failure to make progress sends the player straight to gaol. And some might argue the board game most resembling the ongoing climate debate to be Cluedo, with the players seeking to unveil the climate villain.

During George Bush’s presidency he and the US were painted as the climate villain, but this crown could easily have been worn with distinction by Bill Clinton, as although he signed the Kyoto protocol in 1998 he never had any

intention of submitting it to the Senate for ratification as he knew it would never pass. And history is now repeating itself with Obama’s administration, with resolute barriers being placed in front of the Waxman-Markey bill’s progress through the Senate.

One of these barriers is time. Obama, in an

attempt to be the all singing and dancing

president, has seemingly forgotten a second unwritten rule of politics: only seek to pass one piece of contentious legislation at a time. In seeking to push through radical health reforms Obama has shot his climate policy in the foot with legislative time available being dominated by the health debate. But even if there was not the distraction of health reform it is doubtful that the climate bill would have made any speedier progress.

The fundamental problem with the US is that it is not a globally inclusive nation and it has an exaggerated view of its own importance. If you question this statement look no further than the comments from Todd Stern, the US special envoy on climate change. Taking to journalists after the UN climate talks in New York he argued there had been a ‘seismic turn’ in the US on climate policy, which he said aimed to have a law, and not a mere European-style aspiration, to cut greenhouse gases. He then continued to pour scorn on the EU by calling it ‘obsessively focused’ on measuring reductions against a 1990 baseline and argued the US had not only matched the EU effort but had gone further, and adding for good measure that the US is in ‘an absolutely strong position.’

It is difficult to know whether to laugh or cry at Stern’s deluded rant. To suggest there has been a seismic turn in US climate policy this year is fantasy. Chucking a few billion dollars at the renewable sector makes good headlines but policy is about forward looking change and for all the Obama rhetoric over 40% of the US population still doubt the link between human activity and climate change. And to accuse the EU of climate aspirations is not only misguided, it illustrates the ignorance and arrogance that permeates through US policymaking.

The EU’s third energy package, with its

commitment for 20% renewables and a 20% emission reduction is not an aspiration, and

neither is the UK Climate Change Act. But the icing on the cake of Stern’s rant is his assertion that the US is in an absolutely strong position. How can this be the case? Aside from pumping dollars into a green economic recovery where is the US’ strength on climate action? And let’s not forget that China has been much more

progressive than the US on renewable/green technology investment and is the world leader in solar technology.

Al Gore may have won an Oscar for his film ‘The Inconvenient Truth’, but the inconvenient reality is that the US is very good at talking the

climate talk and telling others what to do but when it comes to domestic climate actions its record remains poor.

Stern may wax lyrical over the Waxman-Markey bill, but the bill is generally a weak replica of the ‘aspirational’ EU’s climate initiatives. The Renewable Electricity Standard

requires 20% of electricity from renewables by 2020, yet EU legislation requires 20% of all

energy to be sourced from renewables by 2020. The bill requires a 17% emission cut by 2020 and 42% by 2030, but these cuts are relative to 2005 and thus significantly less challenging than the 20% EU cut by 2020 relative to 1990 levels. On a cap-and-trade system, scheduled to be phased in from 2012, 85% of allowances would be freely provided compared to full allowance auctioning in the EU scheme from 2013. And to lessen the climate impact, the bill allows for the use of offsets to increase from 15% in 2012 to 33% in 2050, while the EU is seeking to reduce (not increase) the use of offsets over time.

It is understandable that, when reading through this bill and then observing the difficulties of passing it into law, European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso proclaims: ‘Now we are leading the world in setting the [climate] standards.’ But the EU has already had its period of leadership, and while Barroso continues to romanticise over his climate legacy it is the actions of the two leading economies – and polluters ­– that will have the strongest impact, and for all Stern’s bullish rhetoric the US is not in an absolutely strong position, but a relatively weak one.

Jeremy Wilcox

Jeremy Wilcox is managing director of the Energy Partnership, an independent UK-based energy and environment consulting firm.