He quickly followed that pledge today by saying the federal government – as the US economy’s single largest energy consumer – will reduce its own emissions by 28 percent in the next decade.
The announcements, though expected, were welcome by environmentalists in the wake of Obama’s first State of the Union address on Wednesday night, which fell short of addressing specific climate change goals, specifically emissions cuts, as he fough to throw out bipartisan lifelines against the background of an increasingly complex domestic agenda.
Obama told reporters that the government spent more than $24.5 billion on electricity and fuel in 2008. He says achieving the new pollution goal would cut federal energy use by the equivalent of 205 million barrels of oil, the same as taking 17 million cars off the road for one year.
The initiative on federal agencies follows an executive order Obama issued in October and requires agencies to set targets for reducing climate-altering pollution from buildings and fleets. The initiative does not apply to the emissions of companies that supply the federal government or those from federal employees’ commutes.
The government emissions slash is therefore squarely in Obama’s hands, in contrast to the overall US reductions that chief climate envoy Todd Stern announced would take place by 2020 on Thursday, pursuant to commitments made at the Copenhagen climate talks last month. The current US climate bill calls for the 17 percent over 10-year reduction, but the passage of the bill is far from certain.
The legislation – suggesting emissions cuts and a cap and trade programme – is miles from the finish line, and the submission to the UNFCCC is laying America’s climate credibility on the line: other countries that were present at Copenhagen are gearing up to fulfill the emission promises they made at America’s urging, and if the United States can’t live up to its own standard, it could pose major problems for Washington abroad.
The Copenhagen Accord
The Copenhagen Accord created in Denmark is a political agreement among 28 world leaders and representatives of blocs of nations to reduce emissions and raise money to help poor countries. In it, the United States, China and other major emitting nations pledged to submit targets by the last day of January and agreed to be held internationally accountable for those promises.
But the accord is not a treaty and is not binding. Because of that – and because it was created under a chaotic and contentious process that ended with the United Nations merely “noting” the accord rather than adopting it – political analysts and NGO observers consider Sunday’s deadline to be the first major test of the agreement’s strength.
In submitting the American target to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as part of a January 31 deadline negotiated in Copenhagen, Stern took care to mention that the final figure could change depending on the outcome of the US legislation.
“The US submission reflects President Obama’s continued commitment to meeting the climate change and clean energy challenge through robust domestic and international action that will strengthen our economy, enhance our national security and protect our environment,” Stern told reporters.
Countries by and large keeping up with Copenhagen deadline
That nations would agree to their own self-crafted emissions cuts by January 31 was an accomplishment pushed in Copenhagen’s 11th hour when Obama and a handful of other world leaders from big emitters – like China and India – hammered out two weeks of unsuccessful negotiations themselves.
According to a running list compiled by the US Climate Action Network, 23 countries have either submitted or said they intend to submit targets. The list includes the major developing countries that go by the acronym BASIC: Brasil, South Africa, India and China.
It was these four counties that forged an alliance in Copenhagen to stand against binding emissions cuts targets for developing nations, insisting that well-heeled nations instead make good on earlier promises to bankroll poor nations’ transitions to low-carbon economies.
Those four nations formed an alliance during the Copenhagen talks to stand firm against binding targets for developing countries and to insist that wealthy nations make good on earlier promises to help fund poorer nations’ transition to low-carbon economies.
But the BASIC countries eventually pledged emissions targets to the United Nations, but stressed that they will be made voluntarily. China has promised to cut the rise of carbon intensity 40 to 45 percent per unit of gross domestic product, and India has pledged a 20 to 25 percent reduction in business-as-usual carbon intensity.
Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva signed legislation requiring the country to cut emissions 39 percent by 2020, and South Africa has announced plans to reduce the increase of carbon output 34 percent in that period.
A number of other developed countries also have submitted pledges. Australia, as it did before Copenhagen, vowed to cut emissions 5 percent but to do more depending on whether others beef up targets. The European Union similarly entered its well-known promise to cut carbon 20 percent below 1990 levels but go to 30 percent if other governments perform better.
Republicans quick to maul Stern/Obama submission
Republican opponents of emissions cuts and cap-and-trade legislation swooped in quickly Thursday, with Matt Dempsey, spokesman for Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe calling the US emissions target “meaningless,” ClimateWire reported.
“Given the number of statements by Senate Democrats, and it’s a long list, cap and trade is dead this year,” Dempsey said, in comments that echoed many other republican lawmakers following Obama’s first State of the Union address – in which he did not mention cap-and-trade at all.
Democrats tried to guard against these hard knocks, telling reporters that they praised the submission to the UNFCCC.
Representative Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts who co-authored climate legislation that passed the House in June calling for 17 percent reductions by 2030 and 83 percent cuts by midcentury, called the targets “guideposts” for the Obama administration.
“Now the Obama administration is trying to guide the world towards an effective agreement that expands clean energy as it cuts pollution. American leadership is back on the map in this planetary effort,” Markey said in a statement released to Bellona Web.