International climate negotiations get under way next week in Poznan, Poland. Hopes are high that the United States, under President-elect Barack Obama, will take on a leadership role in these ongoing talks once he is president.
Europe seems to be expecting him to commit himself to drastic emission-cut targets. But whether domestic compulsions would allow him to is a moot point.
Many greenhouse gases occur naturally, such as water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone. Others such as hydrofluorocarbons
(PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride
(SF6) result exclusively from human industrial processes. Carbon dioxide
is released into the atmosphere by the burning of solid waste, wood and wood products, and fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, and coal). Nitrous oxide
emissions occur during various agricultural and industrial processes, and when solid waste or fossil fuels are burned. Methane
is emitted when organic waste decomposes, whether in landfills or in connection with livestock farming.
Methane emissions also occur during the production and transport of fossil fuels.
When sunlight strikes the Earth's surface, some of it is reflected back towards space as infrared radiation (heat). The greenhouse gases mentioned above absorb this infrared radiation, trap the heat in the atmosphere and reemit the waves downward causing the temperature of the earth to go up.
And this is called the "greenhouse effect," because of a similar effect produced by the glass panes of a greenhouse, where plants are grown under controlled conditions.
Emissions of two greenhouse gases, methane and carbon dioxide have reached record high, says World Meteorological Organization, an agency of the United Nations.
Hence scientists say the world needs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions rapidly over the coming decades. That means shifting from cheap energy like coal to cleaner, but more expensive, alternatives. And nations around the world must act together.
But governments around the world are far from agreeing on a strategy for dealing with climate change.
Nations have at least agreed to a deadline of December 2009 to come up with a climate treaty to replace the current agreement, the Kyoto Protocol, which mostly expires at the end of 2012.
Meeting that deadline will be an enormous challenge for the Obama administration. Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, says Obama should take on a whole new strategy.
"The previous administrations began with the international negotiations and viewed the treaty as the beginning of a conversation with Congress that could in turn drive domestic legislation," Krupp said at a recent conference in Washington, D.C. But the Kyoto Protocol was dead on arrival on Capitol Hill, and there's been little progress since under the Bush administration.
"The old strategy of negotiating the international agreement first and then going to Congress for the implementing of legislation just won't work," Krupp concludes. Domestic action must come first, he says.
Obama has some ideas in mind for domestic policy. For starters, he says he intends to invest heavily and quickly in jobs to build new clean energy sources such as wind and solar.
But the governments of Western Europe are pressing for far more - they want binding emissions-reduction targets and timetables for reaching those. To create those domestically, Obama will have to work with Congress to enact tough new legislation.
Margo Thorning, an economist at the American Council for Capital Formation, says many on Capitol Hill are likely to balk at legislation that replaces cheaper energy supplies with cleaner, but more expensive, substitutes.
But European diplomats say they are counting on Obama to lead, reports Richard Harris for NPR Radio.
"There is little doubt that without a strong commitment from the United States, with comparable emissions cuts, there is not likely to be a new climate change agreement," says Thomas Becker, Denmark's chief climate negotiator.