Obama Takes Climate Stand: Announces Emissions Target, Plans to Attend Copenhagen
Last week, President Obama ended months of speculation concerning his pre-holiday travel plans by announcing that he will personally attend the upcoming climate conference in Copenhagen. The announcement is significant for two reasons, according to Darren Samuelson and Lisa Friedman in Wednesday’s New York Times.
First, Obama will be the first sitting president to attend the conference since George H.W. Bush in 1992, which lends the visit substantial symbolic value, even if Obama’s attendance doesn’t lead to an international pact. The fact that Obama is boarding a plane at all marks a break from the previous administration, whose public comments on climate change most often consisted of a wan shrug.
Second, Obama will bring with him a real, if “provisional,” plan to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions. This is the first time that the United States has gone on record with specific goals concerning the reduction of its emissions, and many supporters of climate legislation now hope that the president’s announcement of a firm target will encourage other industrialized and developing countries to offer specific goals of their own. While no one expects Copenhagen to produce a legally binding treaty, it is generally hoped that the conference will act as a “steppingstone” toward a global climate agreement, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it earlier in November.
In his announcement, Obama said that the United States will cut greenhouse gas emissions “in the range of 17 percent below 2005 levels” by 2020. This goal parallels recent plans outlined by Congress, which have incited various rumblings and approbations from Republicans and Democrats. The House climate bill, which passed earlier this year, also calls for an emissions reduction of 17 percent by 2020, while the Senate bill includes plans to cut emissions by 20 percent, although this target will likely be diminished during subsequent negotiations. The administration has hitherto avoided stating specific emissions goals, mainly because climate legislation has stalled in the Senate—and in Washington, as elsewhere, it is unwise to put the cart before the horse. In other words, Obama is taking a bit of a risk.
No doubt this is one reason why his remarks have been lauded by Democrats in favor of climate change legislation. With uncharacteristic verve, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) referred to Obama’s proposal as “one hell of a global game changer with big reverberations here at home.” Moreover, Obama’s public commitment to climate change legislation could put to rest the longstanding, largely conservative opposition to such legislation. According to Senator Kerry, the numbers offered by the United States will “lay the groundwork for a broad political consensus at Copenhagen that will strip climate obstructionists here at home of their most persistent charge, that the United States shouldn’t act if other countries won’t join with us.”
Another big question, of course, still remains: will other countries join us? With the United States leading the way, many have hoped that China and India—along with the US, the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases—would follow along. And while the results of Obama’s forward charge have been fairly encouraging, it seems ill-advised to call it a decisive victory. On Friday, the United States and India announced a “green partnership,” pledging—rather vaguely—to work together to fight against climate change. While significant, the announcement did not include specific emissions reductions targets, and did little to indicate exactly how much money the United States plans to give India to help bolster its green initiatives.
While visiting China earlier this month, President Obama released a similar joint statement with Chinese President Hu, suggesting that the Copenhagen conference should “include emission reduction targets of developed countries and nationally appropriate mitigation actions for developing countries.” This is simply a nice way of saying that the United States and China will be held to different standards when it comes to cutting emissions, despite exhortations from the United States and Europe that China deal more aggressively with skyrocketing pollution. Thus, taking advantage of yet another political euphemism, China has agreed to reduce its “carbon intensity” by 40 to 45 percent, rather than cut its “carbon emissions”—a different enterprise altogether, and one that allows its overall carbon emissions to continue to increase.
But here’s another way to look at it. The World Resources Institute calculates that President Obama’s goal of a 17 percent emissions reduction is equal to slightly more than a 40 percent reduction in emissions intensity—the percent reduction that China has proposed. Stated that way, it appears that the United States and China have a like-for-like deal, though each apparently prefers to state the deal in different terms. One wonders, of course, why China is so resistant to actual emissions cuts, and what effect that may have on future climate policy.