As leaders in Washington obsess about the fiscal cliff, President Barack Obama is putting in place the building blocks for a climate treaty requiring the first fossil- fuel emissions cuts from both the U.S. and China.

State Department envoy Todd Stern is in Doha this week working to clear the path for an international agreement by 2015. While Obama failed to deliver on his promise to start a cap-and-trade program in his first term, he’s working on policies that may help cut greenhouse gases 17 percent in 2020 in the U.S., historically the world’s biggest polluter.

Obama has moved forward with greenhouse-gas rules for vehicles and new power plants, appliance standards and investment in low-emitting energy sources. He’s also called for 80 percent of U.S. electricity to come from clean energy sources, including nuclear and natural gas, by 2035.

“The president is laying the foundations for real action on climate change,” Jake Schmidt, who follows international climate policy for the Washington-based Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an interview in Doha. “Whether or not he decides to jump feet first into the international arena, we’ll see.”

Envoys from more than 190 nations are entering their second week of talks today at the United Nations conference working toward a global warming treaty. Their ambition is to agree to a pact in 2015 that would take force in 2020. It would supersede limits on emissions for industrial nations under the Kyoto Protocol, which the U.S. never ratified.

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