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CLIMATE CHANGE: Obama to Visit Copenhagen with U.S. Targets

Matthew Berger

WASHINGTON, Nov 25 2009 (IPS) - After weeks of speculation, the White House announced Wednesday that President Barack Obama will stop by the climate talks to be held in Copenhagen next month en route to Oslo, where he will receive his Nobel Peace Prize Dec. 10.

The announcement comes after Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen sent invitations to the leaders of 191 countries last week requesting their attendance at the Dec. 7–18 U.N.-led summit. Sunday, he announced over 60 had confirmed so far.

But Obama – as well as Chinese President Hu Jintao – had been conspicuously absent from the list of attendees. His visit will still be only brief and, significantly, very early in the conference. Decisions are not likely to be reached until the last several days.

Citing the administration’s work in encouraging climate action at international summits and in the U.S. Congress, Michael Froman, Obama’s deputy national security adviser for international economic matters, told reporters Wednesday, “Based on all of those developments and on the recent progress [Obama] made the decision that it made sense to go to Copenhagen…on the 9th, to give momentum to the negotiations there.”

The decision comes as pressure has increased, at home and abroad, for Obama to attend. The announcement that leaders such as Britain’s Gordon Brown, Germany’s Angela Merkel and Japan’s Yukio Hatoyama would attend put the spotlight on the absences of Obama and Jintao and the fact that his visit is so early still leaves some climate action proponents unsatisfied.

“We are pleased that President Obama will be in Copenhagen during the early part of the climate summit…If his presence during the latter days of the COP [conference of parties] becomes necessary to secure the right commitments, 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,” said World Wildlife Fund climate programme director Keya Chatterjee Wednesday.

Maybe more exciting for those hoping to see a substantive plan emerge from the conference, the White House also announced Wednesday that it would bring a specific offer of reductions in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to the table at Copenhagen. Still, the reductions fall short of what they may have hoped for.

Obama will present a U.S. emissions target “in the range of 17 percent below 2005 levels in 2020 and ultimately in line with final U.S. energy and climate legislation”, according to a statement from the White House. This number is the same as that in the U.S. House of Representatives’ Waxman-Markey climate bill, which passed in June.

“What we’re saying is in the range of 17 percent. Waxman-Markey, as you all are aware, passed [with] 17 percent. The debate is not completed yet in the Senate. When the debate is fully completed then we will adjust accordingly,” said Carol Browner, assistant to the president for energy and climate change. The current Senate bill hopes for 20 percent.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, however, has recommended a 25-40 percent decrease of greenhouse gas emissions from industrialised countries by 2020, based on 1990 levels. (According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S.’s 1990 level of GHG emissions was 6,099. In 2005 it was 7,109, an increase of over 10 percent.)

“The 17-percent number is consistent with what Congress has been debating and we hope legislation eventually reaches an even higher target,” said World Resources Institute President Jonathan Lash.

“In announcing a provisional 2020 emissions target, the White House is making a strong and credible offer consistent with the emerging bipartisan consensus in Congress,” said Eileen Claussen of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

But to put the Obama commitment in a global context, Britain pledged a 34-percent cut by 2020 back in April and Japan’s Hotoyama has promised a 25-percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2020 – both according to 1990 levels. Brazil announced earlier this month that it is willing to cut its emissions 38-40 percent by 2020, based on its projected 2020 levels if no action were taken.

China, which has surpassed the U.S. as the world leader in carbon dioxide emissions, is expected to make an announcement in the next week.

Wednesday’s announcement could be seen as a response to a growing disappointment from those who backed Obama in his presidential campaign, when he promised to take action on climate change, and who now see him as dithering on fulfilling that commitment.

The White House announcement was conveyed in a lengthy statement which detailed the administration’s efforts in curtailing climate change during Obama’s time in office, meant to “highlight an impressive resume of American action and accomplishments over the last ten months.”

Among the actions detailed were 80 billion dollars the U.S. is investing in clean energy through its Recovery Act economic stimulus package.

Hopes for a binding treaty at Copenhagen were already dashed when leaders from the top economic powers announced that goal was no longer practical. Instead, they hope the conference will be a step toward an agreement that would be reached sometime next year.

The U.N.-led talks had seemed even less significant without the U.S. president as many observers had seen an Obama-less summit as lacking the credibility needed for substantive action.

“President Obama’s willingness to go to Copenhagen and put numbers on the table are two necessary pieces to make a binding global agreement possible,” Lash said.

With Obama booked, the focus returns to the question of what that action may look like.

“At this point, with two weeks left before Copenhagen, the focus is on how to create an accord that has immediate operational effect and covers all the major areas of the negotiation. It’s a comprehensive accord that can get a quick start at dealing with the climate change issues,” said Froman.

This would form the first step toward a treaty next year.

The full U.S. delegation will include four Cabinet secretaries and several other top administration officials, including Browner. The delegation will be in attendance “throughout” the conference, she said Wednesday.

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