Obama goes to Copenhagen, and offers an emissions cut UPDATED: will China follow?

President Obama has made an unexpected commitment to attend the Copenhagen climate talks in December. Perhaps more significantly, the US has confirmed that it will make an offer of a cut in greenhouse gas emissions: “in the range of” 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020.

Taken together, the two announcements increase the chances that the meeting will come up with a meaningful agreement.

Mr Obama’s decision to go, while eye-catching, is the less significant. He is planning to be there on Wednesday December 9, in the middle of the first week of the two-week talks. As usual in international negotiations, the hard work will not get going until the talks near their end on December 18, by which time Mr Obama will have been and gone, stopped off in Oslo to collect his Nobel prize, and flown home to get ready for the holidays. While he is in Copenhagen, expect some grand rhetoric, rather than heavy lifting in the talks.

Environmental campaigners were divided on the value of his trip. Some were supportive, but Kyle Ash, of Greenpeace USA climate policy adviser, was quoted as saying:

The Copenhagen climate summit is not about a photo opportunity, it’s about getting a global
agreement to stop climate chaos. President Obama needs to be there at the same time as all the other world leaders – December 18. This is when he is needed to get the right agreement. Again the right city, again the wrong date. It seems that he’s just not taking this issue seriously.

(The president’s last visit to Copenhagen was for his failed attempt to bring the Olympics to Chicago.)

The announcement of the 17 per cent figure for the proposed US emissions cut is likely to have the greater impact on the meeting. It had seemed that the talks faced a Catch-22: the US could not reach an international deal until Congress had passed emission reduction legislation, and the legislation was unlikely to pass unless an international deal was in place.

Now the Obama administration has decided to escape that impasse by putting a number on the table. That raises the pressure on other countries, above all China, that have not yet set clear emissions targets. (China, India, and other emerging economies will not be asked to cut their emissions, just to set clear and verifiable limits on how far their emissions will grow.)

The lack of a clear offer from the US will no longer be an excuse for China and India to remain slippery about their own commitments. That brings the prospect of a deal significantly closer.

The Obama administration is still taking a risk. The 17 per cent cut has been approved by the House, in the Waxman-Markey bill passed in June, but legislation proposing a 20 per cent reduction has not yet gone through the Senate. It will not pass this year, and may fail next year. If that happens, Mr Obama faces the prospect of having to renege on any deal the US reaches at Copenhagen. But unless he took that risk, it looked quite likely there would be no deal at all.

UPDATE: It looks as though China will also make some kind of commitment in its statement on emissions on Friday.

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