Obama Could Tip the Balance at Copenhagen Climate Summit

By Haider Rizvi

NEW YORK, New York, November 19, 2009 (ENS) – The United Nations’ climate agency chief says he wants U.S. President Barrack Obama to join world leaders at the international summit on climate change, which will take place in Copenhagen in December.

“Obama’s presence would make a huge difference,” said Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, responding to a question from ENS during a news conference held today at the UN headquarters.

Yvo de Boer at UN Headquarters, November 19, 2009 (Photo by Mark Garten courtesy UN)

In the past few days, media reports in the United States have indicated that Obama is unlikely to attend the historic summit in Copenhagen, apparently due to growing pressure from energy corporations, some of which are opposed to a concrete agreement at the conference.

However, in a recent statement, Obama said that he might be willing to take part in the Copenhagen talks. “If I am confident that all of the countries involved are bargaining in good faith and we are on the brink of a meaningful agreement and my presence in Copenhagen will make a difference in tipping us over edge, then certainly that’s something that I will do,” he said November 9 in Washington.

President Obama will be in Scandinavia on December 10 to accept the Nobel Prize for Peace at Oslo City Hall. While the Copenhagen climate conference will begin on December 7 in neighboring Denmark, the High Level Segment for heads of state and government begins on December 16 and continues until the summit ends on December 18.

Most nations have joined the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which entered into force in 1994, to begin to consider what can be done to reduce global warming and to cope with whatever climate changes are now inevitable. More recently, a number of nations approved an addition to the treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, which has more powerful and legally binding measures. Under this agreement, 36 developed nations are committed to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions an average of 5.2 percent during the period 2008-2012.

President Barack Obama at the White House November 11, 2009. (Photo by Pete Souza courtesy The White House)

The Copenhagen meeting is expected to finalize the terms of an agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions that will take effect when the Kyoto Protocol’s current comittment period expires at the end of 2012.

The Copenhagen meeting is considered to be crucial in averting the worst consequences of climate change – extreme weather events, melting glaciers and polar ice, sea level rise, droughts, heat waves and species extinctions.

De Boer told reporters that rich countries, including the United States, must put a total of at least $10 billion on the table “to kick-start immediate action.” He said they must also list what each country would provide and how funds would be raised to deliver “large, stable and predictable financing” to mitigate climate change and help developing countries adapt to whatever effects are inevitable.

“If the lungs of the world collapse, the rest will die,” he warned, pointing to the need for action for international cooperation to preserve and sustain forests. “We need a last push and it can be done,” he said.

Coal-fired power plant in Utah emits greenhouse gases. (Photo courtesy Utah Geological Survey)

The United States is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, after China. With about five percent of the world’s population, the U.S. emits roughly 25 percent of global greenhouse gases.

De Boer said all industrialized countries, with the exception of the United States, have already come up with their offers of targets for greenhouse gas reductions after 2012. He noted that Russia had “increased” its targets and “a number of other countries” intend to do the same.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced Wednesday that his country would try to reduce greenhouse emissions by 25 percent, not by 15 percent as was planned before.

De Boer reminded reporters of the European Union’s pledge to reduce its emissions by 30 percent if an agreement is reached at the Copenhagen summit, adding that many developing countries already have national climate change and energy strategies in place.

“Recent reports that Copenhagen has failed even before started are simply wrong,” said de Boer. New commitments from both industrialized and developing countries are coming “in almost every day now,” he said.

Bituminous coal and oil fire this power plant in Russia’s Altai Republic. (Photo courtesy Kuzbassenergo)

De Boer told an informal meeting of the UN General Assembly today that aggregate pledges made so far by industrialized countries for mid-term reductions fall short of the target of 20 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, which the scientific community calls necessary to avoid more disastrous change. “Industrialized countries clearly need to raise their level of ambition,” he said.

General Assembly President Ali Treki told the same meeting that progress at Copenhagen is not optional, “it is imperative to our very survival.”

He later added at a news conference that the world is now conscious of the dangers of climate change for everyone, not just the most vulnerable countries, and that it is in the interest of everyone to “achieve a good result” in Copenhagen.

To de Boer, a successful agreement in Denmark must state the individual targets of industrialized countries to cut their carbon emissions, must provide clarity on the scope and engagement by developing countries, and provide financing for their efforts to mitigate rising global temperatures.

To a question about whether the outcome at Copenhagen would be a legally-binding agreement rather than merely a political statement, de Boer said he hopes a treaty could be adopted in the summer of 2010.

“I don’t think any self-respecting head of state or head of government is likely to back away from commitments [that they have made],” he told reprorters.

Asked by ENS about the role of the private sector, de Boer said companies in various parts of the world have been “crying” for government guidance that would drive their investment decisions.

“The dip in energy sector investments resulting from the global economic crisis has resulted in a drop in emissions, but the big question remains what will happen when these investments pick up again,” he said. They could be guided by ambitious targets expressed in a Copenhagen agreement or by a lack of clarity if no agreement is achieved.

In response to ENS questions about the U.S. role in the Copenhagen summit, de Boer said President Obama’s administration has shown “incredible courage and leadership” on climate change. The UN climate chief said he thinks that Obama wants “a deal” in Copenhagen.

“I am confident that the President of the United States can arrive in Copenhagen with a target and financial commitment,” de Boer said. “People would like to see the United States making an effort.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.