Open-Ended Climate Legislation Delay Means Cleantech Needs to Rethink Itself

Last Updated May 26, 2010 1:10 PM EDT

Supporters of climate change legislation received the latest blow to their hopes yesterday with a comment made by a high-ranking Chinese official. Xie Zhenhua, China's delegation leader at last year's Copenhagen climate conference, more or less crushed hopes of building an international consensus this year, in comments to a political gathering.

World leaders have already indicated several times that reaching any firm commitments this year, at the next round of talks in Mexico, is unlikely. Xie seemed to kick the can even further down the road, according to Reuters:

Environment ministers of the so-called BASIC bloc of major emerging economies -- Brazil, South Africa, India and China -- agreed a month ago that a deal should be sealed by 2011... But Xie signaled that was more a target than a last-ditch deadline, with talks in Mexico at the end of the year likely to produce little more than incremental progress on less-controversial issues like forest protection schemes.

"According to the current negotiating process, every country is taking quite a pragmatic approach. We hope that this year everyone can increase mutual trust, and move forward in exchanging opinions on all key problems, so we can have a positive result from this year's meeting in Cancun," he said.

Asking only for a "positive result" is the very definition of a low standard for success. China, now the world's largest polluter, is clearly in no hurry to pass anything binding.

Here in the US, hopes have been similarly dashed. Although some seemed hopeful that a "tripartisan" bill by senators Lindsey Graham, John Kerry and Joe Lieberman would get enough support to pass this year, squabbling over other political issues has impeded the bill, and most environmentalists found the draft bill severely lacking, even when it seemed viable.

Following the November elections, which may put the Republican party in power, it's unlikely that any more forceful bill will be able to pass for at least two years, barring overwhelming new evidence of climate change.

What this means for cleantech companies is that any previously held hopes of getting a boost from climate legislation -- from stronger subsidies to a hefty price on carbon emissions -- are withering.

Some companies within the cleantech industry saw this trend coming, of course, even before this year. A scattering of voices has always called for cleantech developers to focus on the strategic value of renewable energy when marketing their products, by focusing on the value of renewables for national security, a cleaner local environment or a solution to peak resources.

Now seems like the perfect time for a full-out change in message, with BP's oil spill spreading across the Gulf of Mexico. But there are also companies that seem to have no clear idea of what to communicate. As climate legislation recedes ever further into the distance, the renewable energy industry is likely to find a new passion for repositioning itself.

[Image credit: Fort Photo / flickr]