Obama to attend climate talks in Copenhagen, set goals to reduce emissions

By Juliet Eilperin and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 26, 2009

The White House announced Wednesday that President Obama will attend U.N.-sponsored climate talks in Copenhagen next month and commit the United States to specific targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The administration's decision to identify a series of goals, including cutting emissions over the next decade "in the range of" 17 percent below 2005 levels, is a calculated risk, given that Congress has never set mandatory limits on greenhouse gases.

The figure amounts to a 5.5 percent cut below the 1990 levels that most countries use as a reference point, much less than what most other nations have called for. It is also less than what President Bill Clinton endorsed in the Kyoto talks in 1997 and well below the 25 to 40 percent cut that the European Union has asked of industrialized countries.

However, the target will be contingent on passage of domestic legislation, and that figure reflects the current U.S. political reality. The House already passed such a target, and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who is working on a bipartisan bill, said in an interview that the short-term target is "a strong and good place to be."

Obama has come under intense pressure from world leaders and his domestic supporters to take the lead in forging a global pact to slow climate change.

He will visit the Danish capital Dec. 9, one day before he goes to nearby Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, which he won in part for his efforts to restart talks that have been stalled in recent years. But he will arrive well before more than 75 heads of state gather in Copenhagen for the high-level portion of the talks, which at best will produce a political deal to be ratified as a legally binding treaty in 2010.

Deputy national security adviser Michael Froman said the goals are being offered in the context of nations such as India and China following suit. "At this point, it's critical that all countries, all major economies come forward with their mitigation actions . . . to maximize the chance of progress in Copenhagen," he told reporters Wednesday.

But that critical question -- to what extent China and India, which are not bound by the same obligations as industrialized countries under the U.N. process, would cut their emissions as part of a global pact -- remains unanswered. The top leader of each nation, both of whom met with Obama over the past week and a half, are expected to announce their own climate plans within days.

Ned Helme, president of the Center for Clean Air Policy, said Obama is "walking a knife's edge" to encourage China and India to act without alienating Congress. "It's a calculated risk, but it's the right play."

A senior administration official said: "We don't know specifics yet. We have had many conversations with main players on the importance of the major developing countries doing their part, but we don't know what they're going to do yet."

For months, leaders of industrialized and developing nations have been calling on the United States -- and, to a lesser extent, China, which together with the United States accounts for about 40 percent of the world's emissions -- to commit to cuts that would be deep enough to secure a political deal in Copenhagen. Most other major greenhouse gas emitters, including the European Union, Australia, Brazil, South Korea and Indonesia, have identified how they would curb their carbon dioxide output in the near future.

"Without any significant offers from the U.S. and China, only half of the world's emissions will be covered," Swedish Environment Minister Anders Carlgren told the European Parliament on Tuesday. "Let me be very clear on this: An agreement in Copenhagen stands and falls with significant bids from the U.S. and China."

Most environmental groups and European leaders lauded Obama's decision to identify climate targets -- including further reductions of 30 percent by 2025 and 42 percent by 2030 -- and his decision to go to Copenhagen.

Danish Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen, who pioneered the idea of forging a political agreement next month that could be finalized as a binding treaty in 2010, said, "The visit emphasizes the will of the president to contribute to an ambitious global deal in Copenhagen."

But domestically, some question whether the administration will be able to deliver on its promises. Ben Lieberman, a senior energy and environment policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said it appears the administration is making "the same mistake the U.S. delegation made at Kyoto in 1997, promising abroad what probably can't be delivered at home . . . And, while it's a large enough number to pose a real risk to the U.S. economy, [it] is also a target that does not satisfy many in the international community who complain that America has not done enough."

Robert Dillon, spokesman for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), the top Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said it is "a positive sign" that Obama will attend the climate talks but emphasized that any final U.S. target will be determined by lawmakers rather than international negotiators.

"Regardless of what the administration says in Copenhagen, the real negotiations on reduction cuts happen here in Congress," Dillon said. "We pass the laws."

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