WASHINGTON – The White House announced Wednesday that President Barack Obama will attend U.N.-sponsored climate talks next month in Copenhagen and commit the United States to specific targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
The administration’s decision to identify a series of goals, including cutting emissions over the next decade “in the range of” 17 percent below 2005 levels, is a calculated risk given the fact that Congress has never set mandatory limits on greenhouse gases.
That amounts to a 5.5 percent cut below the 1990 levels that most countries use as a reference point, much less than what most other nations have called for. It is also less than what President Bill Clinton endorsed in the Kyoto talks in 1997 and well below the 25 percent to 40 percent cut that the European Union has asked of industrialized countries.
However, the target will be contingent on passage of domestic legislation, and that figure reflects the current U.S. political reality. The House has already passed such a target, and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who is working to fashion a bipartisan bill said in an interview that the short-term target was “a strong and good place to be.”
Obama has come under intense pressure, from both world leaders and his domestic supporters, to take the lead in forging a global pact to slow climate change.
He will visit the Danish capital Dec. 9, one day before he goes to nearby Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, which he’s receiving in part for his efforts to relaunch talks that have been stalled in recent years. But he arrives well before more than 75 heads of state gather in Copenhagen for the high-level portion of the talks, which at best will produce a political deal to be ratified as a legally binding treaty in 2010.
Deputy National Security Adviser Michael Froman said the goals were being offered in the context of countries like India and China following suit. “At this point, it’s critical that all countries, all major economies come forward with their mitigation actions … to maximize the chance of progress in Copenhagen,” he told reporters Wednesday.
But that critical question – how much China and India, who are not bound by the same obligations as industrialized countries under the U.N. process, will cut their emissions as part of a global agreement – remains unanswered. The two nations’ top leaders, both of whom met personally with Obama over the past week and a half, are expected to unveil their own climate plans within days.
Ned Helme, president of the Center for Clean Air Policy, said that Obama is “walking a knife’s edge” to encourage China and India to act without alienating Congress. “It’s a calculated risk, but it’s the right play.”
“Do we know specifics? We don’t know specifics yet,” said a senior administration official. “We have had many conversations with main players on the importance of the major developing countries doing their part, but we don’t know what they’re going to do yet.”
For months industrialized and developing leaders have been calling upon the United States – and to a lesser extent, China, which together with the United States accounts for roughly 40 percent of the world’s emissions – to commit to cuts that would be deep enough to secure a political deal in Copenhagen. Most other major greenhouse gas emitters, including the European Union, Australia, Brazil, South Korea and Indonesia, have identified how they would curb their carbon output in the near future.
“Without any significant offers from the U.S. and China, only half of the world’s emissions will be covered,” Swedish Environment Minister Anders Carlgren told the European Parliament Tuesday. “Let me be very clear on this: An agreement in Copenhagen stands and falls with significant bids from the U.S. and China.”
Most environmental groups and European leaders lauded Obama’s decision to identify a series of climate targets – including further reductions of 30 percent by 2025 and 42 percent by 2030 – and his decision to come to Copenhagen.
Danish prime minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen, who pioneered the idea of forging a political agreement next month that could be finalized as a binding treaty in 2010, said, “The visit emphasizes the will of the president to contribute to an ambitious global deal in Copenhagen.”
But domestically, some critics questioned whether the administration would be able to deliver on its promises. Ben Lieberman, a senior energy and environment policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said it appears it is making “the same mistake the U.S. delegation made at Kyoto in 1997, promising abroad what probably can’t be delivered at home … And, while it’s a large enough number to pose a real risk to the U.S. economy, is also a target that does not satisfy many in the international community who complain that America has not done enough.”
Robert Dillon, spokesman for Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the top Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said it’s “a positive sign” Obama is attending the climate talks but emphasized any final U.S. target would be determined by lawmakers rather than international negotiators.
“Regardless of what the administration says in Copenhagen, the real negotiations on reduction cuts happen here in Congress,” Dillon said. “We pass the laws.”