The Obama administration announced Wednesday that the president will attend, briefly, global climate talks set for next month in Copenhagen. The White House also unveiled the greenhouse-gas targets it will present, on the condition that what the US can ultimately offer hinges on the outcome of energy and climate legislation currently before Congress.
The announcement comes as welcome news to officials with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the overarching climate treaty under which the negotiations are taking place.
President Obama's presentation of specific targets, though provisional, is "politically critical" to progress in Copenhagen, says Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UNFCCC.
Speaking to reporters at a briefing in Bonn on Wednesday, he added that Mr. Obama's one-day stopover, scheduled for Dec. 9, is vital.
"The world is very much looking to the United States to come forward with an emission-reduction target and to contribute international financial support to help adapt to the impacts of climate change," said Mr. De Boer. "If he can deliver on his election-campaign statements that Copenhagen needs to be a success, by coming to Copenhagen himself, that will be critical to a good outcome."
So far, roughly 60 heads of state have said they plan to attend the meeting. Typically, they attend during the second week of the two-week session. Obama is dropping in for a day during the first week on his way to Oslo, Norway, to accept his Nobel Peace Prize. It's unclear if he plans to stop back when many other world leaders are present.
Whatever Obama's itinerary, the provisional targets released Wednesday represent a lubricant to the talks. According to a White House statement, the US will offer to reduce US greenhouse-gas emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, 30 percent by 2025, and 42 percent by 2040, en route to 83 percent reductions by 2050.
These provisional targets are "in line with current legislation in both chambers of Congress and demonstrates a significant contribution to a problem that the US has neglected for too long," according to the statement.
Long-time participants in the UN climate-change process note that the White House statement sidesteps for now a critical issue: financial aid to developing countries for adaptation and for buying the technologies that will allow the poorest among them to leapfrog carbon-intensive energy sources as their economies grow.
The targets fall short of the 25- to 40-percent emissions cuts scientists say developed countries must achieve to hold global average temperature increases to about 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Indeed, the targets developed countries have offered so far would collectively fail to reach that goal, according to data gathered by the website www.climateactionracker.org – a product of three European nongovernment organizations involved in climate-change issues.
Meaningful 2020 targets are one key element. Without them, developing countries are reluctant to participate in any new agreement. Researchers say developing countries' emissions must deviate substantially from business as usual to stand a chance of achieving the 2-degree goal.
While the near-term developed-country targets fall short of what the science indicates is needed, commitments of financial aid from Washington could help minimize the fallout, says Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
For the US in particular, "the 2020 targets aren't at the level the rest of the world is expecting," he explains. They represent what the administration can realistically expect to get through Congress – particularly the US Senate, which must ratify any new climate treaty.
Washington's longer-term targets are more credible, however. Playing the aid card well could help keep developing countries at the table despite the low 2020 numbers, according to Mr. Meyer.
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