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U.S. Submits Emissions Target to UN – Other Nations Follow Suit to Meet Copenhagen Accord Deadline

NOTE: See the update below for the latest from the UNFCCC and links to countries officially submitting targets and mitigation plans under the Copenhagen Accord

Meeting the January 31st deadline specified in the Copenhagen Accord that president Obama helped negotiate at the COP15 climate conference in Copenhagen, the State Department has formally submitted its emissions reduction target to the UNFCC of 17 percent over 2005 levels by 2020. The target is consistent with expectations and in line with the Waxman-Markey Clean Energy and Security Act that passed the House last summer.

The U.S. submission reflects President Obama’s continued commitment to meeting the climate change and clean energy challenge through robust domestic and international action that will strengthen our economy, enhance our national security and protect our environment,” Said State Department climate envoy Todd Stern, who was also the lead negotiator for the United States in Copenhagen (until president Obama arrived on the scene).

Squeaking through the House last summer, climate legislation now languishes in the Senate, with passage (or even debate) anytime soon thrown into further doubt with the election of Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts, replacing Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat. Prior to Stern’s announcement, the president publicly pushed Congress to finish their work, adding a caveat that the final U.S, and upsetting the Democrat’s apparent need for a filibuster-proof super majority to get anything done. Despite his prodding of Congress to not “run for the hills”, many fear that even Obama has moved climate and energy legislation down in his list of priorities in light of last week’s State of the Union Address.

In his letter (pdf) to UNFCCC executive secretary Yvo de Boer, Stern made clear that the U.S. target is contingent on whether other developed and major developing (China and India) countries have met the January 31st deadline just passed.

We expect that all major economies will honor their agreement in Copenhagen to submit their mitigation targets or actions,” he said.

The EU has followed through with its target of 20 percent over 1990 levels by 2020. The BASIC block of countries (Brazil, China, South Africa and India), and the core group involved in the frenzied last-minute negotiations that produced the Copenhagen Accord, submitted a statement early last week of their intention to offer formal emissions  targets. China and India have pledged to reduce their “carbon intensity” – a measure of greenhouse gas emission per unit of production – by 40 percent and 20 percent respectively by 2020. Brazil has passed a law mandating a 36 percent emissions reduction over current levels by 2020. South Africa has promised to curb its rise in emissions from coal-fired power plants by 34 percent by 2020.

But the same caveat Stern places on other nations to follow through with commitments applies in even greater measure with the United States. The rest of the world has learned their lesson with the Kyoto Protocol, knowing full well that any meaningful commitment from the U.S. depends on Congress.

President Obama’s position is thus not an easy one, given his obligation to act in accordance with the agreement he helped forge – a process he personally pursued in the final hours of the confernece beyond the mandate of Stern and his team. He is committed to offering an emissions target, a commitment with weakening support in Congress. And the eyes of the world focus on Congress and progress of domestic legislation.

The fact that Obama said himself, ‘Yes, we’ll go ahead and write this down’ … he has a huge interest in making sure that a bill happens,”  said Rob Bradley from the World Resources Institute, where he heads up an international climate policy directive.

The UNFCCC is expected to publish a list today of all 57 countries expected to participate and “associate” themselves with the accord, representing 73.3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Falling short, but a “Crucial First Step”

The total pledged emissions reductions targeted for 2020 falls short of the Copenhagen Accord’s stated goal of limiting warming to within 2 degrees Celsius this century, scientists say. According to a report in Business Green, a study from PricewaterhouseCoopers determines the pledges submitted thus far all nations amounts to a reduction of just under four Gigatons of CO2e (CO2 equivalent) from business-as-usual. The study warns that another 16GtCO2e of reduction is necessary to “move onto a ‘low-carbon pathway’ and fall into line with recommendations from climate scientists,” the report said.

Nonetheless, it  is a “crucial first step,” said UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown

For the first time, the world will see, collected together, strong mitigation commitments by countries representing more than 80% of global emissions,” Brown wrote in a letter.

Update – UNFCC issues statement and list of countries pledging emissions reductions targets under the Copenhagen Accord deadline

Moments ago, the UNFCC issued a press saying in part:

Following the conclusion of the climate change talks in Copenhagen, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has received submissions of national pledges to cut and limit greenhouse gases by 2020 from 55 countries.  These countries together
account for 78 per cent of global emissions from energy use.

“This represents an important invigoration of the UN climate change talks under the two tracks of Long-term Cooperative Action under the Convention and the Kyoto Protocol,” said Yvo de Boer, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC.

“The commitment to confront climate change at the highest level is beyond doubt. These pledges have been formally communicated to the UNFCCC. Greater ambition is required to meet the scale of the challenge. But I see these pledges as clear signals of willingness to move negotiations towards a successful conclusion,” he said.

The UNFCCC list of nations submitting reductions targets under the Copenhagen Accord:

Sources and further reading:
Scientific American
Climate Ark
Common Dreams
New York Times
Climate Wire (sub. required)

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