Yes, no, maybe so
Q: As we get closer to the United Nation's conference on climate change in Copenhagen and nations begin setting their agendas, are their goals realistic? Last week, the U.S. and China each announced their emissions target goals. Are they big enough?
Realism will reign in Copenhagen. As I wrote in an earlier posting, the pragmatic commitments proposed by President Obama and Chinese President Hu could grease a sticking point in negotiations and allow a political accord on greenhouse gas reductions this month, with a legally binding treaty coming next year sometime.
Although not yet affirmed by legislation, President Obama's proffer of "in the range of 17 percent" reduction in emissions by 2020 reflects the immediate political reality in this country. To put this in context, Maryland's Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act, enacted earlier this year, sets a target of a 25 percent reduction in that same time frame. Maryland's per capita emissions, already about 30 percent below the national average, in fact, declined by 8 percent between 2004 and 2007.
Realizing reductions over the next decade is important, as science suggests it is critical that steep reductions be achieved by mid-century in order to avoid dangerous climate disruption. From that perspective, the President's provisional targets are more aggressive and closer to what is required (reductions of 30 percent by 2025, 42 percent by 2030, and 83 percent by 2050).
Under the Chinese proposal, their emissions are likely to grow, not decline, by 2020 because it calls for a 40 to 45 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emitted per unit of economic output of their growing economy. While this at least engages the now-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, it would have to be followed by commitments for substantial real reductions by 2030 and beyond.
Meanwhile, the European Union's environmental commissioner suggested that Europe up its ante from a 20 percent reduction to a 30 percent reduction from 1990 levels (the U.S. and Chinese commitments above are from 2005 levels).
Perhaps the biggest challenge faced by the negotiators in Copenhagen will be how to weave together this veritable Babel of approaches into whole cloth in a way that can then be transitioned to binding commitments.
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