Capitol Hill not China could scupper a climate deal

Whatever the outcome in Copenhagen, the battle will move to the Senate

Everything we're hearing from Copenhagen suggests that in the past 24 hours hope has begun to win out over gloom. I was never one of those who feared the summit would end in ignominious failure. No country (not least sensitive China) wants to be branded the one that sabotaged an agreement.

But there now appears every chance it will end in a profoundly inadequate deal. A leaked UN report suggesting the emissions cuts offered so far would still lead to global temperatures rising by 3C on average reminds us that future generations are still likely to face a climate breakdown. In human terms, a rise of 3C would put 550 million more people at risk of hunger and make up to 170 million more suffer severe coastal floods.

Naomi Klein contends in today's Guardian that no deal is better than a weak deal. She quotes the climate change adviser Matthew Stilwell, who argues:

I'd rather wait six months or a year and get it right because the science is growing, the political will is growing, the understanding of civil society and affected communities is growing, and they'll be ready to hold their leaders to account to the right kind of a deal.

I can't agree; the science may be growing but (however counter-intuitively) so, too, is climate change denialism. Failure at Copenhagen would be hailed by deniers as a victory. "The political will is growing"? There is little will for another summit on the scale of Copenhagen to take place in six months or a year.

Meanwhile, Barack Obama has arrived in town, hailed as the man who can deliver a "knockout punch". What's forgotten is that he faces the formidable task of getting any treaty past the Senate.

The Senate famously rejected Kyoto by 95 votes to zero and Obama is determined to avoid a repeat of this defeat. As a result, he'll only agree to relatively modest measures. Whatever the outcome in Copenhagen today, it is Capitol Hill, as Jeffrey Sachs has predicted, that will be "the last great holdout" preventing a deal.


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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.