Obama is right to set an emissions-reduction goal

Thursday, November 26, 2009

AFTER months of speculation, President Obama announced on Wednesday that he will travel to Copenhagen to attend an international climate-change conference scheduled for Dec. 7-18. More important is that he also decided to take with him an American emissions-reduction target. The United States is no longer the only developed country without an explicit goal.

On both counts, there are risks. As with his unsuccessful mission to win the Olympics for Chicago, Mr. Obama will be criticized if he comes home with less of an agreement than he hopes for. And by setting a goal before Congress acts, he risks alienating legislators. But on both counts, he made the right call. The United States has been a laggard for too long on climate change.

Putting a number on the table, no matter how tentative, should improve Mr. Obama's chances of getting something in return in Copenhagen, particularly from developing countries that have historically resisted making firm international commitments to curb their emissions. Not only is that key for a workable international agreement, it's critical to reviving the legislative process at home. The House passed its Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill over the summer, but the effort in the Senate has stalled. And the legislation currently on the table is far from ideal. If Mr. Obama comes back from Denmark with serious commitments from big polluters in the developing world, particularly China, he can tout what he got in exchange for setting an American target and encourage Congress to get on with codifying it.

In the long run, the target Mr. Obama chose -- in the range of 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 -- is probably too modest. Grouped with other nations' promises, the aggregate international commitment on the table is probably inadequate, too. That's also something the administration and the world will have to address, eventually.

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