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Why the U.S. Should Engage in Cancun

This piece originally appeared on the National Journal "Cancun Insider" blog.

While progress on climate change was distressingly slow— both at home and abroad— this past year, there are still many reasons why we must move forward with an international climate agreement. The next two weeks will likely show whether the world is ready to turn the corner and move in a more productive direction on this issue.

Certainly, no one expects a major breakthrough in Cancun, but progress is possible– and the United States can do its part by being part of the solution. (See WRI’s President Jonathan Lash’s editorial on four keys to the Cancun talks here.)

Here are three reasons why the United States should engage in Cancun:

1. Clean energy markets are open

The demand for energy is growing worldwide, and so are opportunities to get into the clean energy marketplace. In 2009, China became the world's leader in energy consumption; the United States ranked second; while India came in fourth.

According to the International Energy Agency, global investment in clean energy will likely reach $5.7 trillion from 2010 to 2035. This year, Ernst & Young rated China as the most attractive country for renewable energy investment, ahead of the United States.

If the United States wants to be a leader in renewable energy— and take advantage of the opportunities and jobs that clean energy holds— it should be helping move the world to lower-carbon energy and drive up investment in renewable sources.

2. Science says we can’t wait

Over the past year, the world witnessed multiple destructive weather events that will only become more common and extreme as the impacts of climate change grow. These events— like the Pakistan floods, Russian wildfires, and record heat waves in the eastern United States — are consistent with climate change models.

Last week, the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) along with several other groups, including WRI, released a new report on the gap between countries’ pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions and what the science says is needed. The report states that even if the most ambitious emissions pledges from the Copenhagen Accord are realized, the world will still have a shortfall of about 5 gigatons of GHGs to prevent global temperatures from increasing less than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Put another way, these pledges would only reduce GHGs by 60 percent of what’s needed. Carbon emissions are global, so we need global action to tackle this issue.

3. The world is watching

The collapse of federal climate and energy legislation has left many countries wondering if the United States is serious about reducing its emissions. Now the world is watching to see how the United States responds. Even without a climate bill, the United States can move forward with real reductions in carbon emissions. As a report by WRI shows, using existing EPA authority and state action, the United States can come close to its declared target of 17 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2020 (compared to 2005 levels).

To show that the United States is serious, President Obama should re-affirm the U.S. commitment to its target of a 17 percent target. As the second largest producer of carbon emissions (behind China), the United States has an opportunity – and a global responsibility– to shift to a low carbon pathway. In doing so, we can demonstrate global leadership and make it clear that we understand the urgency of tackling climate change.

The fact is the global warming is happening and its dangerous impacts are already being felt. No amount of wishful thinking will make it go away.

Hopefully, by the conclusion of the Cancun talks, negotiators will be able to show real progress on the key issues and get on track for an international climate agreement. (See my related Q&A on what to expect in Cancun here.)

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