The U.S. remains the only industrialized nation that has not committed itself to a greenhouse gas reduction target with Copenhagen climate talks just weeks away. Pressure is increasing on the U.S. to commit to a target, but the UN climate chief warned that the lack of ambition from rich nations as a whole could still foil hopes of any kind of agreement by the end of 2009.
"Unfortunately, it is not a single country that holds the key to success," said UN climate chief Yvo de Boer (pictured here), during a press conference wrapping up the final two days of pre-negotiations in Copenhagen this week.
An American number "is critical," de Boer explained. "But we are also still in the situation that the targets offered by the group of industrialized countries as a whole are not in line with what science is telling us is necessary," he said.
In short, progress will largely boil down to "more ambition from industrialized countries," said de Boer.
So far, the rich have pledged emissions cuts in the range of 11 to 15 percent from 1990 levels by 2020. The climate bills in play in Congress propose reductions of 17 percent and 20 percent below 2005 levels by 2020—equivalent to cuts of 4 percent to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.
Dig deeper into those numbers, said Jonathan Pershing, U.S. deputy special envoy for climate change, and this detail jumps out: The cuts in Congress are actually "more aggressive" than the 20 percent reduction promised by Europe. It is an argument that leaves many unpersuaded. EU nations have been gradually decreasing emissions, while the US, after years of inaction, is faced with making up for lost time.
But this much is clear: The range of proposed reductions emerging from lawmakers in America would not be enough to appease poor nations. Developing nations are demanding an aggregate cut from the rich of at least 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2020. Without that, there will be no deal in Copenhagen at all, they have warned.
The science, at least, is with the poor.
In 2007, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that cuts of 25 to 40 percent would be needed to stave off the worst effects of global climate change. Two years later, global warming is even worse than scientists feared.
New research released this week supports this.
Some 30 scientists from seven countries involved in the Global Carbon Project said the world could warm 6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. That's four degrees more than previously predicted—and a worst-case scenario for the planet.
Whether the world will raise political ambition in time to avert a crisis remains to be seen.
The Copenhagen summit (Dec 7-18) was long seen as the last chance to set rigorous greenhouse cuts before the first commitment period of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012.
It's a chicken and egg problem, and it comes back to the U.S, David Turnbull, director of the international Climate Action Network, told SolveClimate.
"Developed countries have not put forward proposals that meet the urgency of the problem," he said. "But if the US comes to the table with a strong offer, other countries may be willing to increase their ambition as well."
The EU has pledged a 20 percent cut, with the caveat of ratcheting that up to 30 percent if other rich nations sign on. They "should" make that jump in Copenhagen, especially if the U.S. commits to a concrete figure, Turnbull said.
"Australia, Canada, and Japan might also consider increasing their reduction targets as well, in the face of a new proposal from the U.S. and mounting pressure from their citizens at home," he added.
Tougher targets are "not out of the question," according to Turnbull.
In fact, science-based commitments from the wealthy are already on the table. Norway and Scotland have both pledged to reduce their emissions by at least 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.
They may be small nations in the grand scheme of global climate stabilization, but they show how "rich countries can indeed take on such strong commitments," he said.
On Sunday, Denmark Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen sounded the death knell for a legally binding deal to come out Copenhagen.
At a breakfast meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), he said that a deferral "plan" has been agreed on by the APEC nations, which would look to Copenhagen to set a deadline for binding legal text sometime in future.
News of the so-called "deal" for a Copenhagen non-agrement spread through the media like wildfire. Advocates on the ground in Denmark said it was greatly overblown.
"Rumors about the death of the Copenhagen deal have been greatly exaggerated," said Kim Carstensen, leader of the WWF global climate initiative. "There is still enough time to agree on every single detail of a climate deal. A declaration that a deal is binding would take only a few seconds. There is no lack of time, there is lack of political will," he said.
"Danish Prime Minister Rasmussen has become complicit in a US so-called 'deal' which would put Obama''s political difficulties ahead of the survival of the world's most vulnerable countries," said Kaisa Kosonen, climate policy adviser for the organization.
The problem lies with the Danish host, Tove Ryding, climate change advisor for Greenpeace, told SolveClimate.
"They are focusing only on the U.S. and completely ignoring all the developing countries, despite the fact that the poorest and most vulnerable countries are the ones that will be worst hit by climate change," Ryding said.
"As one delegate said in the corridors, 'Rasmussen is behaving like Obama's poodle,'" she added.
Poorer Nations Must Step Up
De Boer made it clear this week that the world's industrializing nations must also increase their commitments to curb their exploding emissions growth.
"It is essential that we also have clear indication from major developing countries on what they are willing to do to lower the growth of their emissions," said de Boer. Without their action, "the long term response to climate change is meaningless," he added.
The UN climate chief has previously suggested that poor nations could limit their
emissions 15 percent below business as usual by 2020, to help seal an agreement.
On Sunday, Brazil announced a target of 36 percent below predicted levels by 2020. Similarly, South Korea said it would strive for a 30 percent cut below business as usual over the next decade.
While not binding, de Boer called the offers "encouraging." With just a few weeks to go until Copenhagen, "we need more offers of that kind," he said.
Meanwhile, in a surprise turnaround, Russia announced this week it is revising its proposed CO2 cut to 20 to 25 percent by 2020 from 1990 levels, up from its previous stated target of 15 percent.
In response to Russia's announcement, de Boer said all industrialized countries have now given targets for their greenhouse gas emission reductions, apart from the U.S.