WASHINGTON _ With just over two weeks to go before global climate negotiations in Denmark, the United States has yet to decide whether it can meet international expectations and offer to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a certain amount in the next decade.
The success or failure of the talks in Copenhagen could hinge on whether the United States offers a concrete plan. Failure would mean a loss of momentum toward a treaty to reduce carbon emissions that includes all countries, which already has been delayed to next year. Moreover, other countries are unlikely to move forward to cut emissions if the United States doesn't pledge to make mandatory reductions.
Todd Stern, the U.S. negotiator, said that the U.S. hasn't decided whether it will say how much it intends to reduce emissions.
"If we do, it will be contingent on the enactment of our legislation," he said in an interview with McClatchy.
All other industrialized nations have unveiled their emissions reduction plans. Some other large emerging markets have done so, as well, including South Korea and Brazil. Many other countries, however, are waiting to see the United States' long-term plans before they agree to make firm offers and commit to them under the force of an international accord.
President Barack Obama, during his visit to China, said he supported a Danish plan to reach a strong agreement in Copenhagen on all the key points. Among them are:
- What the industrialized countries will do to cut emissions by 2020
- What China and other developing countries will do to reduce their emissions
- How countries will prove they make the cuts they promise
- How industrialized nations will help poorer countries jumpstart clean energy and cope with the climate changes that are likely to occur
Stern said some kind of financial aid is likely if an agreement is reached, possibly a lump sum by the industrialized nations to help defray the costs to developing countries.
"It's all under discussion," he said.
Obama said that the U.S. and China agreed, "that each of us would take significant mitigation actions . . . and stand behind these commitments."
It remains to be seen, however, how strong a commitment Obama has in mind. Neither the U.S. nor China has said what it plans to do.
The Senate has delayed a climate and energy bill until spring. The legislation includes a system to put a limit on emissions that declines each year and to allow large polluters such as power plants and refineries to buy and sell pollution permits.
Stern said the United States wants to see China propose a "significant domestic program" that would make "very significant reductions of emissions." China also has been the country that is most reluctant to agree to provide definitive evidence that the promised emissions reductions are actually being made, he said.
The U.S. hopes for an agreement that would take effect immediately, so that financing and technological support for clean energy development could start and countries would begin to reduce emissions.
"At Copenhagen, governments must reach an agreement on all the essential elements of a comprehensive, fair and effective deal on climate change that both ensures long-term commitments and launches immediate action," Yvo de Boer, the U.N.'s top climate change official, said on a United Nations Web site.
In press conferences this month, he's called on the United States to offer specific emission cuts by 2020 and to agree to aid for developing countries.
Without a target of how much the U.S. will reduce emissions, the Copenhagen talks could fail, said Jennifer Morgan, the director of climate and energy at the World Resources Institute. The U.S. target could be provisional, based on what Congress decides, or it could be a range, she said.
It also would help the talks if Obama made a clear statement that he wanted Congress to complete the climate bill by spring, she said.
Elizabeth Bast, the international programs director at Friends of the Earth, said that her environmental group is disappointed by the Obama administration's lack of an ambitious emissions reduction target and a financing plan.
Meanwhile, the White House hasn't decided whether Obama will go to Copenhagen. Dozens of other world leaders plan to attend.
James Hansen, the director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who alerted Congress about the dangers of global warming in 1988, argues that political rhetoric isn't being matched by effective action.
When it comes to climate, Hansen writes in an upcoming book, "President Obama does not get it. He and his key advisers are subject to heavy pressures and so far their approach has been, 'Let's compromise.' "
David Brown, a lobbyist in Washington for the Exelon Corp., one of the nation's largest power companies, said, "It appears as though the White House is seriously considering stepping up and making some commitments based on what they can do as an executive branch, but I don't think we'll get the final deal out of Copenhagen. I think that will wait for the Senate to wrap up action."
Nigel Purvis, a former U.S. climate negotiator who heads a consulting firm, Climate Advisers, said at a hearing in Washington last Tuesday that the U.S. team faces a serious challenge.
"It needs to be forthcoming enough to keep international negotiations moving forward, while at the same time not getting too far ahead of the Senate and the Congress as a whole, which needs more time to consider energy and climate legislation."
Carter Roberts, the president and chief executive officer of the World Wildlife Fund, said there was "enormous opportunity in Copenhagen because the developing world is ready to play ball."
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