With the start of international climate negotiations just days away, and with global allies and public interest organizations pressing the United States and China for emissions reductions, the White House and Beijing spent last week in an apparently coordinated program of announcing critical steps to help push the world as close to a binding agreement on climate change as possible.

China announced it would set a target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 relative to economic development. China said it would limit what it calls “carbon intensity” by 40 to 45 percent compared to 2005 levels, according to Xinhua, the state news agency. The New York Times reported that the targeted emissions reduction was a “voluntary action” and taken by the Chinese government “based on our own national conditions,” the State Council, China’s cabinet, said in a written statement.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday the White House made public three important steps. First, President Obama will attend the UN Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen. His appearance on December 9 comes a day before he receives the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway. President Obama will be among the more than 60 heads of state scheduled to participate in the Copenhagen negotiations, which occur from Dec. 7 to Dec. 18 and include delegates from 192 nations.

Second, the Obama administration said it is prepared to commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 “in the range” of 17 percent below 2005 levels, and that the overall goal of the U.S. is to reduce emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels in 2025, 42 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, and 83 percent below 2005 levels by 2050.

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“For the first time, an American administration has proposed an emissions reduction target. When President Obama lands in Copenhagen, it will emphasize that the United States is in it to win it,” said Senator John Kerry, a Democrat of Massachusetts and one of the leading advocates of climate action on Capitol Hill. “This announcement matches words with action.”

And third, the administration is establishing a U.S. Center in Copenhagen and sending its natural resources, environment, climate, and energy A-team to aid negotiators, hold news conferences, and present formal talks. The high-ranking delegation is meant to underscore what the White House said is “the historic progress the Obama administration has made to address climate change and create a new energy future.” Among the president’s senior aides scheduled to be in Copenhagen are Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, along with Carol Browner, assistant to the president for energy and climate, and Nancy Sutley, the chair of the Council on Environmental Quality.

India Yesterday, China Friday
Both announcements come after President Obama and India’s Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, signed a series of cooperation agreements on Tuesday to launch a U.S.-India “Green Partnership” on energy security, climate change and food security. The three features of the U.S.-India announcements that are compelling are 1) a commitment to a strong outcome in Copenhagen, 2) collaboration on clean energy research and deployment, and 3) capacity building in India for climate adaptation and environmental governance.

The efforts by the Obama administration to collaborate with China and India appear clearly intended to establish President Obama’s global leadership on climate action, a path he staked out for himself and the United States since the 2008 presidential election. Moreover, for weeks the Obama administration has plainly signaled its resolve to make the Copenhagen negotiations, if not the final step in writing a new climate treaty, a substantive conference with historic influence in securing the environment and advancing a global clean energy economy. Earlier this month, during the U.S. – China summit in Beijing, President Obama declared his intention to draw as close as possible to a climate agreement that has tangible results. “Our aim is not a partial accord or a political declaration,” the president said, “but rather an accord that covers all of the issues in the negotiations, and one that has immediate operational effect. This kind of comprehensive agreement would be an important step forward in the effort to rally the world around a solution to our climate challenge.”

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Consistent with Domestic Legislation
The emissions targets made public this week by the White House are consistent with the proposed schedule of greenhouse gas emissions reductions contained in climate and clean energy bills that passed the House in June, and passed the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee earlier this month.

The White House, however, did not announce targets for financial commitments to help developing nations adapt to climate change and the low-carbon economy. That number has been anxiously awaited by the European Union, and many of the world’s developing nations. Yvo de Boer, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, took note today of the urgency of making those commitments as well. “The US commitment to specific, mid-term emission cut targets and China’s commitment to specific action on energy efficiency can unlock two of the
last doors to a comprehensive agreement,” De Boer said in a statement today. “Let there be no doubt that we need continued strong ambition and leadership. In particular, we still await clarity from industrialized nations on the provision of large-scale finance to developing countries for immediate and long-term climate action.”

In responding to the White House announcement, American environmental and climate action groups generally expressed satisfaction in the president’s decision to attend Copenhagen. But almost all noted that the president needed to follow his administration’s strong presence in Copenhagen with a full-court press in Congress to pass domestic climate and clean energy legislation. Doing so, they said, will advance the work of clearing the skies of climate changing pollution and accelerating the clean energy economy in the United States. And a domestic law would help reach a legally binding and final global climate agreement next year.

“It’s great that he’s going to Copenhagen,” said Angela Anderson, the program director of the US Climate Action Network, a coalition of nearly 90 organizations based in Washington, D.C. “And he needs to keep Air Force One warm so that he can return to seal the deal.”

Get It Done in Washington

“It’s essential that President Obama communicates his personal commitment to ensuring Congress passes climate and energy legislation in early 2010,” added Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “The world needs to hear that this will be a top priority for him and the Senate once Congress completes its work on domestic health care reform.”

The president’s Copenhagen travel plans also prompted criticism from opponents to climate action and clean energy, among them Senator James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who considers climate change a scientific “hoax.” “It’s clear that China, India, and the developing world, which will soon be responsible for the vast bulk of greenhouse gas emissions, will not accept mandatory cuts in emissions-despite entreaties from President Obama,” said Senator Inhofe in a statement today. “The U.S. Senate has made clear on numerous occasions that unilateral action by the United States is unacceptable, because it will harm our economy and have virtually no effect on climate change.”

But Senator Kerry told a reporter for E&E News this week that the White House emissions target “lays the groundwork for a broad political consensus at Copenhagen that will strip climate obstructionists here at home of their most persistent charge, that the United States shouldn’t act if other countries won’t join with us. It is an enormous shot in the arm for those of us working overtime to get a comprehensive bill passed in the Senate. And the fact that the president will attend the Copenhagen talks underscores that the administration is putting its money where its mouth is, putting the president’s prestige on the line.”