Climate talks: Obama victory offers hope, but Congress is key
One of Barack Obama's first tasks will be to lead the United States back into the heart of the global debate on climate change, ending the country's years of isolation and skepticism.
His victory will spark intense relief among negotiators in Europe and Asia.
Obama has pledged nothing less than a demolition of the policies that since March 2001 have left America friendless and at times a pariah on the issue of global warming.
But analysts caution those who believe Obama's win will now smash the deadlock gripping a new UN deal on greenhouse gases.
One one side, Obama has to swiftly persuade the world that his country is now keen on tackling its colossal emissions of heat-trapping carbon.
But he also has to deal with the lengthy post-inauguration processes in Washington -- and secure support for emissions curbs when millions of Americans are worried by their country's sick economy.
"There is an idea in some parts of the world that the US will get re-engaged and that will solve everything, but it will still be a difficult process," said Reid Detchon, executive director of climate and energy at the UN Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation that supports the role of the United Nations.
When President George W. Bush walked out of the Kyoto Protocol, the cornerstone UN accord on cutting carbon pollution, he dealt a nearly lethal blow to efforts to resolve the world's most urgent environmental problem through global negotiation.
Progress to craft a more ambitious successor to Kyoto beyond 2012 has been stymied by a standff between the United States and the developing giants.
Bush loathes Kyoto-style caps on emissions, saying these measures are too costly for the US economy and unfair if fast-growing polluters escape similar constraints.
The emerging economies, though, argue that the historical blame for today's warming lies with countries that powered their rise to prosperity by burning oil, gas and coal. In a world still driven by fossil fuels, tough obligations on emissions would threaten their rise from poverty, they argue.
Obama -- in his election manifesto, at least -- would sweep away the pillars of Bush's climate legacy.
He would set a goal of reducing US emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and by 80 percent by 2050, using a cap-and-trade system and a 10-year programme worth 150 billion dollars in renewable energy research and deployment.
He would not wait for China and India to act, but insist they must not be far behind making their own binding commitments, Obama aides told Nature, the British science journal, last month.
Obama will soon have the chance to show how keen he is turn this rhetoric into action.
He is likely to send members of his transition team to Poznan, Poland, for the December 1-12 UN climate talks. They will be negotiators-in-waiting alongside the official US delegation, now in the sunset of the Bush presidency.
Obama's big problem is time.
Only a year will remain before the UN negotiations climax in Copenhagen.
Traditionally, it takes a US president months to appoint a cabinet and gain Congressional approval for it.
Then there is the mammoth challenge of a carbon emissions bill, which powerful utilities and oil corporations may well fight every inch of the way.
It could take until 2010 before such a bill becomes law, says Steve Sawyer, a former Greenpeace activist who now heads the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC), an interest group in Brussels.
"The room to manoeuvre on the CO2 cap and international negotiations issue will be determined more by attitudes in Congress than the general public," he said.
Detchon said other countries will be demanding "some indication" that Congress will go along with Obama's climate policies. In 1997, the US Senate -- whose approval is needed to ratify a treaty -- voted 98-0 against the Clinton administration's approval of the Kyoto format.
To marshall support, Obama could argue that investment in renewables will create jobs and channel some of the revenues from the carbon market to the public's benefit, said some analysts.
He could also argue that energy efficiency is linked to to national security, weaning the US away from imported fossil fuels from volatile regions.
"The same issues that you have to address if you want to reduce dependence on imported oil and create a higher degree of energy security are the same issues that you must address from a climate perspective," said Bjorn Stigson, president of the Geneva-based World Business Council for Sustainable Development.