Will the U.S. Bring Numbers to Copenhagen?

BARCELONA -- Will the U.S. bring numbers to Copenhagen?

That is the question most on the minds of negotiators here in Barcelona as they struggle to chart a path toward success at the upcoming climate summit in Copenhagen.  And with good reason – what can be achieved next month in the Danish capital will depend in large measure on what the United States brings to the table.

Every developed country except the U.S. already has formally adopted or proposed emission targets for 2020.  (According to a compilation by the U.N. climate secretariat, these numbers amount to a collective reduction of 16 to 23 percent below 1990 levels.)  U.S. negotiators are being very coy about whether they will be able to add theirs by the time of Copenhagen.

While a host of other issues bedevil these talks, there is no question that the lack of U.S. numbers severely constrains the range of possible outcomes.  Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine even a solid political deal coming together in Copenhagen if the U.S. is unwilling to, at least provisionally, lay out its intentions on the emissions front.

At the same time, it’s understandable why the U.S. might hold back.  It would be pointless, and potentially disastrous, for the administration to put forward numbers that Congress would not in the end support.  And while the House of Representatives has passed a comprehensive climate bill, the Senate process is just now beginning and won’t conclude before Copenhagen.  So it’s hard to say just where Congress will come out.

Under these circumstances, venturing forward with numbers carries certain risks.  First, there are risks to the domestic climate process:  If too many on Capitol Hill feel the President is getting out ahead of Congress, that could make it harder to build the bipartisan support needed to get legislation done.  Second, there are risks to the international process:  If the U.S. dangles numbers it can’t ultimately sign on to, any interim deal in Copenhagen will unravel, and the negotiations could wind up back at square one.  Finally, if the U.S. puts forward numbers yet no agreement is reached, both the domestic and the international processes could suffer.

Beyond these questions of risk, there are some serious substantive issues:

  • What numbers?  Clearly, any numbers would have to reflect those now under discussion in Washington.  The most obvious are the proposed cap-and-trade targets, ranging from President Obama’s initial proposal (14 percent below 2005; or 1990 levels), to the House-passed bill (17 percent below 2005; 4 percent below 1990), to the Kerry-Boxer bill proposed in the Senate (20 percent below 2005; 6 percent below 1990).  The House bill and Senate proposal contain provisions that would deliver additional reductions, but there is no saying now how they will ultimately fare.
  • In what form?  As we have argued before, and as prominent voices now concur, any likely outcome in Copenhagen would be a political, not a binding, deal – as a basis for then negotiating a legal instrument with binding commitments.  In that event, any numbers agreed in Copenhagen would be provisional.  And without final U.S. legislation, presenting a range would be far wiser than presenting a single number (though the aim in a final legal agreement should certainly be a specific target).
  • What’s the framework?  There are significant differences between the U.S. and other parties on the nature of a future international framework – for instance, would developed country targets be verified according to national or international accounting rules?  If it’s not possible to bridge those differences by Copenhagen, there will be some ambiguity around any targets on the table there.


What’s more, the prospects for a Copenhagen deal hinge as well on a second set of numbers: financial contributions to support developing country efforts.  At this point, there are huge estimates of need but no firm offers from any developed countries.  A deal presumably would require clear numbers from all, including the United States.

Whether the U.S. comes to Copenhagen with numbers is a political judgment that can be made only by President Obama.  In our view, he should send numbers only if he is confident that he will be in a position to convert them into a binding commitment (pending ratification) within the timeframe agreed in Copenhagen for reaching a final legal agreement.  His ability to deliver on that will depend on when Congress completes its job; that, in turn, depends at least in part on how vigorously the President chooses to engage in the legislative process.  (His engagement is a necessary condition for – but by no means a guarantee of – legislative success.)

So in the end, the President’s call on numbers for Copenhagen will rest on his judgment of where Congress is, where other parties are, and whether his active engagement can get the job done in 2010.