UPDATE: Obama to announce emissions cut figure for Copenhagen that he will bring to the talks himself

Publish date: November 24, 2009

WASHINGTON – The United States will propose a near-term “provisional target” for reducing greenhouse gas emissions before the United Nations climate change meeting in Copenhagen next month, senior administration officials said during an off the record briefing for reporters.

US President Obama, who had previously not committed to making an appearance at the summit, will travel to the UN climate meeting to introduce emissions reductions “in the range of 17 percent below 2005 levels,”  White House officials told media outlets, including Bellona Web Wednesday. 

He will deliver a speech to the Copenhagen summit on December 9th on his way to Oslo, Norway to accept the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10th, the official said.

It is also possible that the US will provided a dollar figure for short-term financial help for poor nations battling the effects of climate change, said White House climate officials, who spoke to a White House news conference on Tuesday on the condition their names not be used.

Bellona President Frederic Hauge said of Obama’s confirmed appearance in Copenhagen that it was “Very positive – a smart move that will mean much to those gathered in Copenhagen,” and added that the news coming out of Washington was “sensational.” 

Obama had been under considerable pressure from other world leaders and environmental advocates to make the trip as a statement of American commitment to the climate change negotiations. The talks, involving 192 nations, are expected to produce a wide-ranging interim political declaration but stop short of proposing a binding international treaty.

Delegates are expected to commit to completing the treaty next year when they reconvene for COP16 in Mexico.

The Obama administration has resisted until now delivering a firm pledge on emissions reductions because Congress has not yet acted on global warming legislation. But officials said earlier this week that Obama was now prepared to offer a tentative figure based on the work completed in Congress so far.

The House of Representatives passed a bill suggesting a 17 percent emissions cut, while a Senate panel approved for debate a bill that would raise those cuts to 20 percent, though the Senate bill is not expecting  a vote until spring.

Obama has said recently that he would attend the summit if his presence could help lead to a successful outcome. It is significant that he will appear at the beginning rather than at the end of the 12-day meeting. Most major decisions at such environmental forums come at the very end of the process.

“The world is looking for leadership from the US and the proposed emissions reductions are too small to make a significant dent in the problem,” said Jonathan Temple, director of Bellona USA.“

COP 15 will be an opportunity to engage constructively with the administration on how the US can join the global community to aggressively tackle the urgent challenge of global warming,” he said, using to the formal name of the Copenhagen climate summit.

The news of the emissions cuts to be presented by Obama were greeted by Hauge as “very gratifying news.”

“Based on real political point of view, (the news of Obama’s proposed cuts) adds guidelines for further reductions,” he said.

Keya Chatterjee, director the World Wildlife Fund’s climate programme, said Obama’s decision was welcome, but may not be enough to affect the outcome of the talks.

“We are pleased that President Obama will be in Copenhagen during the early part of the climate summit. It’s important that his words during this important moment convey that the United States intends to make climate change a legislative priority, not simply a rhetorical one,” Ms. Chatterjee said, according to the New York Times.

She added that if the talks appear to be bogged down, “We hope the president will be willing to return to Copenhagen with the rest of the world’s leaders during the final stages of the negotiations” if the talks appear to be at a standstill.

The announcement that Obama himself will be citing a specific emissions reduction figure, as well the confirmation of his appearance in Copenhagen are hoped by US negotiators to catapult the American presence in Copenhagen out of the doldrums and back into a position of broad leadership, one White House official told Bellona Web after Tuesday’s off the record briefing.

Citing the recommendations of the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that climate gasses be cut by 20 to 30 percent over the next 10 years to stabilise global warming at 2 degrees Celsius, Bellona Europa director Eivind Hoff said in an email interview that, “A 17-20 percent cut between 2005 and 2020 would be significant given that only 10 years are left – provided that these cuts are made domestically.”

“Unfortunately that is not the case in any of the US bills on the table,” Hoff continued. “Instead there is significant availability of offsetting emissions by financing cheap measures in other countries – notably developing countries without their own national emission ceilings. There is nothing wrong with paying poorer countries to take action on climate change, but such measures should come in addition to domestic emission reductions.”

Hoff said the United States is not in a unique situation in this regard, and that the EU and Norway – two of America’s critics going into the talks are engaged in the same practice.

“(O)ther rich nations like the EU and Norway also rely massively on carbon offsets to reach their ‘own, emission targets,” he wrote. “But that is not a reason to accept it.”  

An opportunity for the US to at least take a seat among the greats
At least 65 world leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and now Obama, plan to make an appearance, according to Michael Helbo, a spokesman for Danish Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen.

Climate Negotiators have tried for almost two years since their last big meeting in Bali, Indonesia, to devise new emissions-reduction targets for the 37 developed nations bound by the 1997 Kyoto Protocol treaty goals that expires in 2012.

Leaders are also trying to agree on standards for the US, which never ratified Kyoto, and for developing nations such as China and India, which had no Kyoto commitments.

‘Good faith’ effort may jump-start an agreement
The announcement of a specific emissions cut goal from the United States would be viewed by the rest of the world as a good faith effort while the current US climate bill is mired in a stalemate in the US Senate, and could provide impetus for a deal in Copenhagen, even though a binding treaty has been viewed as out of reach for several weeks. 

The administration officials who spoke anonymously to the White House brieding on Tuesday are members of the team of American climate change treaty negotiators.

Todd Stern, the State Department Climate Change Envoy, said in an interview with the British daily The Observer that the Obama administration recognises that the US has to come forward with a target.

“What we are looking at is to see whether we could put down essentially a provisional number that would be contingent on our legislation,” Stern told the Observer.

Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group in Cambridge, Massachusetts, agreed.

“It’s good news that the administration has made a decision to put numbers on the table,” he said. “That’s essential.”

Balancing Congress with the world
The lack of consensus in Congress puts Obama in a tricky domestic and diplomatic bind. He cannot promise more than Congress may eventually deliver when it takes up climate change legislation next year. But if he does not offer some concrete pledge, the United States will bear the brunt of the blame for the lack of an international agreement.

A House of Representatives climate bill calls for a 17 percent reduction in US greenhouse-gas pollution over 2005 emissions, while a 20 percent cut over 2005 emissions is outlined in a Senate plan that was pushed through the Senate Environment and Public Works committee by Democratic Senators Barbara Boxer of California and John Kerry of Massachusetts.

Though a commitment to an emissions reduction figure is a milestone in US climate engagement, the figure that is expected to be announced by Obama will probably fall within the already proscribed Congressional range – a far cry from European and Russian pledges to slash their current emissions to 20 to 30 percent below 1990 levels.

Yet Bellona’s Hauge said that climate regulation in the United States could take two paths: either it will be passed by the Senate and signed into law, or recent decisions by the US Environmental Protection Agency, which has classified CO2 and four other primary greenhouse gasses as a pollutant, will be able to exercise regulatory power to bring emissions down.

“But that would bring about numerous court cases that could caue delays as long as four to five years,” said Hauge.

Obama still resistant to commit under fire thanks to Congress
Obama has come under fire from leaders of dozens of countries that have already set more ambitious domestic greenhouse gas reduction targets. He is also under the gun of numerous environmental advocates who say the United States, the world’s second-largest emitter, must take a credible commitment to Copenhagen to ensure that the talks do not crumble.

Paul Bledsoe of the bipartisan National Commission on Energy Policy said the president’s hands were tied by Congressional inaction.

“The US cannot negotiate at Copenhagen above the targets in domestic legislation without risking support for that legislation in the Senate,” Bledsoe said. “If European demands continue above the US domestic targets, they set up an impossible dynamic for the administration.”

The search for a ‘meaningful’ agreement
Danish Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen has invited heads of state to be in Copenhagen the last two days of the meeting. Loekke  will also be chairing the Copenhagen climate talks. Obama and other leaders at last week’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Singapore said that a binding accord for reducing greenhouse gases is unlikely to happen at the December meeting in Denmark.

Instead, they are seeking a “meaningful” political agreement as a framework for a final accord to replace Kyoto.

“It’s important for the president to exert that leadership with consultation with Congress,” Kerry told the New York Times in an interview late last week.

Jonathan Temple contributed to this report.

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