Copenhagen signatories submit pledges, reveal fear of commitment

Barack Obama in Copenhagen.

Barack Obama in Copenhagen.

Fifty-five nations have attached formal emissions targets to the Copenhagen Accord, the United Nations reported today. But most nations, including the U.S., are hedging their pledges:

“In the range of 17 percent,” reads the U.S. commitment now attached to the Copenhagen Accord, “in conformity with anticipated U.S. energy and climate legislation, recognizing that the final target will be reported to the Secretariat in light of enacted legislation.”

The nations that submitted pledges by yesterday’s deadline represent 78 percent of global emissions of greenhouse gases. Only ten bodies, including the  27-nation European Union, submitted hard targets, what the UN calls “quantified economy-wide emissions targets.” Many of them also hedged on their 2020 commitments:

• For example, Australia pledged to reduce its emissions by 5 percent to 25 percent by 2020, depending on the strength of the commitments made by the rest of the world.

• Canada pledged to reduce its emissions 17 percent “to be aligned with the final economy-wide emissions target of the United States in enacted legislation.”

• The European Union is aiming for a 20 percent reduction unless the rest of the world gets its act together, in which case, “the EU reiterates its conditional offer to move to a 30 percent reduction by 2020 compared to 1990 levels, provided that other developed countries commit themselves to comparable emission reductions and that developing countries contribute adequately according to their responsibilities and respective capabilities.”

• Likewise, Norway promised 30 percent, but will bump it to 40 percent if the rest of the world gets serious.

• New Zealand promised 10 to 20 percent cuts, but only if a series of conditions are met, including comparable cuts by other countries and access to a broad and efficient international carbon market.

Kazakhstan, on the other hand, pledged an unequivocal 15 percent cut.

Many other nations pledged mitigation actions instead of hard targets, including the world’s largest polluter, China. Notice the crucial worlds “per unit of GDP” in China’s language:

“China will endeavor to lower its carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 40-45 percent by 2020 compared to the 2005 level, increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 15 percent by 2020 and increase forest coverage by 40 million hectares and forest stock volume by 1.3 billion cubic meters by 2020 from the 2005 levels.”

Because China’s GDP is growing rapidly, these cuts are expected to flatten rather than reduce emissions and may even result in a slight increase.

Brazil submitted a list of reforms to its forestry and agriculture practices which it said will result in a 36 to 39 percent reduction in emissions.

The only surprise in the language from the U.S. is the firm attachment of the U.S. target to climate legislation. The Administration retains the power to enact emissions cuts through regulation, using the Clean Air Act.

Since the Copenhagen Climate Talks reached their dramatic and much debated close on Dec. 20, the Democrats have lost a seat in the U.S. Senate, dimming prospects for a climate bill. The commitment reported to the United Nations Framework on Climate Change echoes the language used by Administration officials during the conference last month, but without the optimism they once attached to it:

“I’m confident that America will fulfill the commitments that we have made,” Obama said in Copenhagen Dec. 18, “cutting our emissions in the range of 17 percent by 2020, and by more than 80 percent by 2050 in line with final legislation.”

A day before, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the first cut sound even more firm: “First, we have announced our intention to cut our emissions in the range of 17 percent below 2005 levels in 2020 and ultimately in line with final climate and energy legislation.”

A footnote on the formal language of the U.S. pledge retains the Administration’s long-term goals: “The pathway set forth in pending legislation would entail a 30 percent reduction in 2025 and a 42 percent reduction in 2030, in line with the goal to reduce emissions 83 percent by 2050.”

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