World Takes the Climate Pledge, Sort Of

by Bill Chameides | February 5th, 2010
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 1 comment

Sixty-three countries have pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Remember the climate lovefest held in Copenhagen last December? Amid lots of discord was one notable, final-hour accord ironed out by the United States, China, India, South Africa, and Brazil. The functionally named Copenhagen Accord [pdf] was unable to get unanimous approval — a requirement of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) for an agreement to be legally binding — and so the assembly “took note” of it and promptly adjourned.

Sixty-Three Countries Step to the Plate to Offer Emission Cut Targets

So how seriously are the UNFCCC nations taking the accord? The first indication came at the end of January, the due date for non-binding emission reduction targets for 2020. The response was impressive: 55 nations pledged to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”

With eight more countries trickling in after January 31st, now 63 nations (38 industrialized and 25 developing economies), recognizing “the scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be below 2 degrees Celsius” and promising “on the basis of equity and in the context of sustainable development, [to] enhance our long-term cooperative action to combat climate change,” have pledged reductions. Three of these are the developing world’s major emitters — China, Brazil, and India.

Collectively, these 63 countries are responsible for about 78 percent [pdf] of global greenhouse gas [GHG] emissions from energy use (which is about 45 percent of total emissions when all anthropogenic sources are included). Like I said, impressive.

Countries Pledge to Reduce Emissions — If …

Before we celebrate a grand global bargain on climate, we should take note of the fine print.

First of all, the Copenhagen Accord’s pledges are voluntary and non-binding. Lest that be forgotten, some countries announced it front and center, such as Brazil: “please note that the envisaged domestic actions … are voluntary.”

Conditions, qualifications, and caveats run rampant through the pledges. Some countries simply make a binding global accord a condition. For example:

  • Japan’s 25 percent target “is premised on the establishment of a fair and effective international framework in which all major economies participate and on agreement by those economies on ambitious targets.”
  • Australia will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent on 2000 levels by 2020 if the world agrees to an ambitious global deal capable of stabilising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at 450 [parts per million] CO2-equivalent or lower.”

Preferring the carrot to the stick, European nations offered to up their emission reductions, “provided that other developed countries commit themselves to comparable emission reductions and that developing countries contribute adequately according to their responsibilities and respective capabilities.”

Some countries incorporated more specific caveats. For example Russia, on condition that “all major emitters” under “legally binding obligations” “reduce anthropogenic GHG emissions,” agreed to cut emissions by 15–25 percent, provided it could also count offsets from Russian forests.

Et Tu, U.S.?

Turning our attention inward, one might assume a 100-percent U.S. commitment, seeing as President Obama was a prime mover of the Copenhagen Accord. Nope.

The U.S. pledge of emission reductions “in the range of 17 percent” came with a catch that directly followed that target: “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.”

Now, I’m not a lawyer, but that sounds to me like a qualified pledge: a 17 percent placeholder for whatever Congress ends up specifying. Which begs the question: what happens if Congress does not specify? A pledge to cut emissions by 0 percent?

This is not an academic consideration. The chances of U.S. climate legislation are fading fast. Even with a 60-filibuster-proof Democratic majority in the Senate, the administration was having difficulty getting the needed votes to pass a climate bill. With the addition of U.S. Senator Scott Brown (R-MA), official as of yesterday, the GOP now has, to quote the Village Voice, a “41-59 majority in the Senate.”

At a town hall-styled meeting in New Hampshire this week, the president appeared to wave the white flag on a climate bill, suggesting that the Senate may have to consider separate bills for cap-and-trade and energy — an idea that Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina characterized as “half assed.”

Turns out, whichever way America blows, so goes Canada: its 17 percent target is “to be aligned with the final economy-wide emissions target of the United States in enacted legislation.”

My question is how many more countries would bail without the United States?

One Lone Pledge Sans Qualification

But not all industrialized countries hedged. One courageous nation pledged to reduce emissions by 15 percent without conditions, qualification, or caveats. That nation? Kazakhstan [pdf]. All hail the Kazakhs.

filed under: Australia, carbon dioxide emissions, climate change, faculty, global warming, international, policy, politics, South Africa
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1 Comment

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  1. Jim
    Feb 8, 2010

    So everybody is waiting for everyone else to take action first. In database parlance this is akin to a “deadlock” condition. Or it’s kind of like an infinite loop. For all the so called wisdom we grownups have we can prattle about like a bunch of children with the best of them. That’s basically what I consider congress, it’s all about making the other guy look bad, not actually doing anything productive. I fear it’s going to take another couple of decades of warming temps and catastrophes that can be linked to global warming before it’s taken seriously. But by then, as we know, it will get much worse for a long time before it can get better.

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