Closing in on a target for carbon emissions

Thursday, November 19, 2009

CLIMATE CHANGE was at the top of President Obama's agenda in China Tuesday, just three weeks before representatives from 192 countries meet in Copenhagen for a much-anticipated international climate conference. And he came tantalizingly close to saying what the rest of the world has been waiting years to hear: that next month the United States, the largest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases, will finally come to the table with a specific carbon reduction target.

In a news conference after his meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Mr. Obama supported Danish Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen's proposal for a far-reaching political agreement at Copenhagen -- one that "covers all of the issues in the negotiations, and one that has immediate operational effect." And the joint statement that Mr. Obama and Mr. Hu released indicated that a Copenhagen agreement, while not legally binding, should "include emission reduction targets of developed countries and nationally appropriate mitigation actions of developing countries."

The United States is the only developed country that has yet to announce a carbon target, even as developing economies such as Brazil have unveiled mitigation policies. China, meanwhile, has talked of a significant reduction in the carbon intensity of its industry, and Tuesday's joint statement indicates it might enshrine that in an international agreement -- a big step that probably depends on American movement.

Indeed, some kind of American target, even one that the full Senate has not yet endorsed, would ease negotiations on some huge issues, including how to verify countries' carbon reductions and how to help developing nations cope with climate change or get off of carbon-spewing development paths. As Mr. Obama indicated in Beijing, identifying or building the institutions necessary to do such things could begin immediately after Copenhagen -- if the parties can agree. Carbon reduction commitments that are contingent on the action of others might kick in. And big developing nations might put specific promises on the table or even agree to enter their commitments into an international legal framework. Mr. Obama could bring all of that home and claim that the United States got something in return for announcing a target -- something U.S. negotiators couldn't claim after the 1997 Kyoto negotiations.

Mr. Obama left himself wiggle room in Beijing, and American negotiators have been wary of getting ahead of the Senate. But that argument goes only so far. One reason for the Senate's delay is that Mr. Obama chose to focus on health-care reform before climate change, even though Copenhagen loomed. He should take the lead on climate now.

The House has endorsed a 17 percent reduction in carbon emissions from the 2005 level, and the Senate is considering a 20 percent cut. The administration is also moving forward with Environmental Protection Agency regulation that does not require congressional approval. Mr. Obama should be able to produce a number or a range of numbers that reflects the level of emissions reduction the United States can achieve.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company