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Obama's climate vow boosts chances for Copenhagen deal

Environmentalists and world leaders are encouraged by the president's commitment on U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and by his plans to attend international talks in December.

November 26, 2009|By Jim Tankersley
  • A fisherman on the Ilulissat Icefjord on the west coast of Greenland. The landmark, which has helped scientists develop an understanding of climate change, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.
A fisherman on the Ilulissat Icefjord on the west coast of Greenland. The… (Slim Allagui / AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from Washington — President Obama will attend the international climate negotiations in Copenhagen next month and is promising sizable reductions in U.S. carbon emissions, the White House announced Wednesday, giving new hope for a global agreement on reducing heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

The United States will reduce its greenhouse emissions "in the range of" 17% below 2005 levels by 2020 and 83% by 2050, administration officials said, giving the world the clearest blueprint yet of U.S. strategies to cut back.

The U.S. pledge and Obama's plans to attend the meeting buoyed environmentalists and world leaders, adding impetus to a gathering that many worried was headed toward failure.

Other countries were awaiting action by the U.S., historically the world's largest carbon emitter, before taking steps of their own.

The president will address negotiators Dec. 9, shortly after the opening of the two-week summit, on his way to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in nearby Oslo.

The 17% reduction range is in line with a climate bill that passed the House in June and is pending in the Senate.

But it is still well below what many scientists, along with political leaders in Europe and developing countries, say is needed from the United States to avert the most catastrophic effects of climate change worldwide.

Most of the world measures emissions-reduction targets from 1990 levels. In those terms, Obama's 17% reduction from 2005 levels translates to about 4% below 1990 levels. That's less than the 7% cut from 1990 levels that the United States would have been committed to achieve by 2012 under the Kyoto Protocol, which the Clinton administration signed in 1997 but the Senate never ratified.

In contrast, the European Union has committed to reduce its emissions by 20% below 1990 levels by 2020, and by 30% if other wealthy nations make comparable pledges.

Even those reductions fall short of the 25% to 40% reductions over that period that many scientists and environmental groups say are needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

Damon Moglen, Greenpeace USA's global warming campaign director, said that the latest U.S. targets were more politics than real progress. "Obama continues to shirk domestic and international leadership on climate policy," he said.

White House officials said that the decisions announced Wednesday stemmed in part from recent discussions between Obama and the leaders of China and India, two developing nations whose participation is seen as crucial to any successful negotiation.

Those discussions left the president optimistic that his presence in Copenhagen could seal a meaningful -- though not legally binding -- climate deal, meeting the standard that Obama previously set for his attendance at the summit, the officials said.

"He made the decision that it made sense to go to Copenhagen . . . to give momentum to the negotiations there," said Michael Froman, deputy national security advisor for international economic affairs.

Carol Browner, Obama's assistant for energy and climate, said that the administration hoped that the announcements would lead other nations "to put forth ambitious actions of their own."

Browner and half a dozen other Cabinet-level officials, including Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Energy Secretary Steven Chu, also will attend the talks, the White House said Wednesday.

Environmentalists, world leaders and top Democrats in Congress said that Obama's attendance would add heft to the Copenhagen meeting, especially if the president emphasizes his intention to push aggressively for congressional passage of a climate bill early next year.

"The fact that he's going in person to deliver that message -- if it's the right message -- can make a big difference," said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental group.

Yvo de Boer, the United Nations' climate chief, called Obama's attendance and the announcement of a concrete reduction target from the United States "critical" to the talks.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who heads the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said that Obama's 17% emissions reduction range proposal was "realistic, it's smart, and it's credible."

The Copenhagen meeting originally was intended to produce a new climate deal to succeed the landmark Kyoto Protocol, which is in force until 2012.

Leaders of nations key to the talks, including the United States and China, have conceded in recent weeks that negotiations have proceeded too slowly to produce a legally binding treaty in Copenhagen.

Instead, those nations are now aiming for a precursor to a future treaty to be completed next year but that would nevertheless include crucial issues such as emissions reduction pledges for individual nations.

Obama's attendance carries political risks at home, where his energy and climate bill has bogged down in the Senate behind his administration's healthcare overhaul.

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