Thursday, December 17, 2009

President Obama Comes to “Hopenhagen”

For the past two weeks, at every juncture when the failure of COP15 has seemed inevitable, thousands of silent pleas have floated above Copenhagen hoping for the presence of one man on Friday to save the proceedings. President Obama arrives tomorrow in Copenhagen with hopes at COP15 raised beyond any likely outcomes of the president’s trip.

As U.S. delegation leader Todd Stern said yesterday “Our commitment is tied to our anticipated legislation. We don't want to promise something we don't have.” The President may have the constitutional power to sign treaties, but how an international treaty is legislated domestically is a job of the U.S. Congress and particularly in this case the US Senate.

These considerations must contextualize Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s announcement today that the U.S. will help build $100 billion in annual funding to developing countries by the year 2020 for climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts. The announcement is a serious commitment by the United States. It allays the fears of some critics for the time being. But there’s good reason to be wary of trumpeting success too early.

The European Union and several developing country leaders at the COP15 plenary today reasserted their demands for more emissions reductions from the U.S. and China. The U.S. reductions commitment at this point is pegged at a 17% reduction by 2020 using a 2005 baseline and a 4% reduction by 2020 using the 1990 baseline of the Kyoto Protocol, which the U.S. has never ratified. Those countries obligated under the Kyoto Protocol to meet certain percentages of emissions reductions based on that 1990 baseline are not happy with the paltry amount the U.S. has offered, despite the American claim that reductions will stand at 85% by 2050. The money is great but the emissions reductions are not.

With both the U.S. and China thus lacking on the emissions reductions front, COP15 comes down to the widely predicted showdown and hopes of an agreement between the two countries.

Secretary Clinton’s announcement places China on the defensive as the potential spoiler of COP15 and releases some of the pressure on the U.S. in terms of financing commitments to present more substantial solutions for now. Mexico City will determine that, buying some time. In terms of “Hopenhagen,” then, rather than entering into a situation of impossibly high expectations, today’s developments set the stage politically for President Obama tomorrow to leverage concessions from China and to fulfill at least some of the hopes of COP15.

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