The United States has officially promised the world that it will reduce global warming pollution about 17 percent below 2005 levels in the next decade. Now the question is whether President Obama can deliver.
In an announcement yesterday, U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern submitted America's target to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change as part of a Jan. 31 deadline negotiated in Copenhagen last year. In doing so, Stern made a point of noting that the final figure could change depending on the outcome of U.S. legislation.
"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," Stern said in a statement.
But a bill cutting carbon and creating a cap-and-trade system faces deep uncertainties in the Senate right now. Analysts are warning that could pose a major problem for Obama abroad as other countries gear up to fulfill the emission promises they made at America's urging.
"It will be deeply, deeply problematic for the international community if [climate legislation] does not pass," said Rob Bradley, director of international climate policy at the World Resources Institute.
Partisan responses to U.S. move
Already, Republican opponents to cap-and-trade legislation are attacking the submission. Matt Dempsey, spokesman for Sen. James Inhofe (R-0kla.), called the U.S. target "meaningless."
"Given the number of statements by Senate Democrats, and it's a long list, cap and trade is dead this year," Dempsey said. He noted that Inhofe went to the U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen last year specifically to inform other nations that the U.S. Senate would not be passing a climate bill, and called Obama's pledge "troubling."
Democrats, meanwhile, praised the submission. Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), who co-authored climate legislation that passed the House in June calling for 17 percent reductions by 2030 and 83 percent cuts by midcentury, called the targets "guideposts" for the Obama administration.
"Now the Obama administration is trying to guide the world towards an effective agreement that expands clean energy as it cuts pollution. American leadership is back on the map in this planetary effort," Markey said in a statement.
The Copenhagen Accord created in Denmark is a political agreement among 28 world leaders and representatives of blocs of nations to reduce emissions and raise money to help poor countries. In it, the United States, China and other major emitting nations pledged to submit targets by Jan. 31 and agreed to be held internationally accountable for those promises.
But the accord is not a treaty and is not binding. Because of that -- and because it was created under a chaotic and contentious process that ended with the United Nations merely acknowledging the accord rather than adopting it -- political analysts consider Sunday's deadline to be the first major test of the agreement's strength.
"What's important to look for is that there's a critical mass that creates the impression of a tipping point having been crossed," said Nigel Purvis, president of Climate Advisers and a former senior U.S. climate negotiator.
23 countries may respond
So far, according to a running list compiled by the U.S. Climate Action Network, 23 countries have either submitted or said they intend to submit targets. The list includes the major developing countries that go by the acronym BASIC: Brasil, South Africa, India and China.
Those four nations formed an alliance during the Copenhagen talks to stand firm against binding targets for developing countries and to insist that wealthy nations make good on earlier promises to help fund poorer nations' transition to low-carbon economies.
But in pledging mitigation targets to the United Nations, the BASIC countries stressed that they will be done voluntarily. China has promised to cut the rise of carbon intensity 40 to 45 percent per unit of gross domestic product, and India has pledged a 20 to 25 percent reduction in business-as-usual carbon intensity.
Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva signed legislation requiring the country to cut emissions 39 percent by 2020, and South Africa has announced plans to reduce the increase of carbon output 34 percent in that period.
Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the BASIC countries' statement of support for the Copenhagen Accord earlier this week "put a nail in the issue of whether they were going to put forward their commitments."
Meanwhile, a number of other developed countries also have submitted pledges. Australia, as it did before Copenhagen, vowed to cut emissions 5 percent but do more depending on whether others beef up targets. The European Union similarly entered its well-known promise to cut carbon 20 percent below 1990 levels but go to 30 percent if other governments perform better.
Bangladesh weighs in with a pledge
"The E.U. is determined to move ahead rapidly with implementing the Copenhagen Accord in order to make progress towards the agreement that we need to hold global warming below two degrees," European Commission President José Manuel Barroso said in a statement.
Even poverty-stricken countries like Bangladesh and tiny nations like the Marshall Islands made pledges. Bangladeshi leaders noted that as one of the world's least-developed countries, Bangladesh is not obligated to cut emissions -- but it is willing to if it receives the monetary help to do it. Similarly, the Marshall Islands pledged to cut carbon 40 percent below 2009 levels with financial help.
Bradley noted that wealthy countries that had developed a range of possible targets are ringing in with the least ambitious options. He called that disappointing, but said it was more important that every major emitting country put at least something in the registry.
"For the time being, things are looking reasonably good," he said. "It is going to be a critically important factor for keeping the momentum."
Click here to read the BASIC countries' statement.
Click here to read the European Union's statement.
Click here to read the United States' statement.