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Climate Targets

With the climate conference in Copenhagen in December seen by many as the make-or-break event, the EU position is relatively clear- a 20% by 2020 cut in emissions (from 1990 levels), unless a good global agreement can be reached, when the target would be raised to 30%.

The UK is amongst the leaders in pushing for high targets. The Budget in April set what was claimed as the world’s first carbon budget, as required by the new Climate Change Act, with a legally binding 34% reduction in emissions by 2020. The government said it will ‘increase the level of ambition of carbon budgets once a satisfactory global deal on climate change is reached’. Longer term, there is a firm commitment to an 80% cut by 2050.

While welcome, all that will mean very little if the US and China don’t come up with decent targets. The good news from the USA is that, after years of denial under Bush, the US government now sees greenhouse emissions as a major issue: the Environmental Protection Agency is now regulating them. And progress is being made on national targets. Against strong opposition, the House of Representatives has just voted 219 to 212 to bind the US to cutting carbon emissions by 17% from 2005 levels by 2020 and by 83% by 2050. It also agreed that a national carbon ‘cap and trade’ system should be established and to a 15% 2020 target for electricity from renewables. However this has still all to be passed by Senate- where opposition is likely to be even stronger.

The opposition has already led to watering down of targets. For example, the draft US Clean Energy act called for a 20% cut on 2005 emission levels by 2020, and for the US to get 25% of its electricity from renewables by 2025. The fossil lobby wanted just a 6% cut by 2020 and lower renewable targets. Even so, the emission level now agreed by the House of Representatives (17%) is a significant compromise and the 15% target for electricity from renewables is an even bigger compromise, especially since it seems 12% could be allowed in some regions with poor resources, and energy efficiency gains may be allowed as a substitute for some renewables.

In any case, even if finally passed into law through Senate, these are just paper targets. The crucial thing is the proposed new US Carbon trading system – a key element in translating the targets into reality. Indeed, although much was made of the £150 billion over ten years that Obama allocated to renewables and other green energy projects earlier this year, as part of the US Economic stimulus package, much of that funding will only materialise if the carbon trading system goes ahead. This may explain why the very large stimulus allocation (around 10 times current support levels) was not fought much by Republicans- they may have been waiting to block it at source by opposing the Carbon trading system. If that is proves to be the case, the fear is that the new proposals won’t get through in time for the USA to make a clearly positive contribution at the Copenhagen conference.

While this may be a problem, it seems that the simple fact that Obama is now taking the US into climate negotiations has been enough for the Chinese to engage in the process more fruitfully – and that in turn has helped Obama, since one of the main reasons for opposition to the Kyoto protocol in the US was that it didn’t apply to newly developing countries like China, whose emissions were expanding rapidly. They have actually recently overtaken the US. But China now seems to be thinking in terms of, if not absolute cuts, then at least a commitment to the reductions in the growth of its rapidly expanding carbon emissions.

Su Wei, a leading figure in China’s climate change negotiating team, said that officials were considering introducing a national target that would limit emissions relative to economic growth in the country’s next 5-year plan from 2011.’China hasn’t reached the stage where we can reduce overall emissions, but we can reduce energy intensity and carbon intensity.’ i.e. carbon emissions/GNP. Whether an agreement will be reached on that before the Copenhagen conference remains to be seen.

The stakes are high- for Obama and for the world. The EU is pushing hard, and, whatever might be happening at home, the USA seems to be bending over backwards to get a global agreement. It has proposed that developing nations like China should not be required to commit to specific emission targets, but should be asked to commit to boosting energy efficiency standards and improving the take-up of renewable energy. And there are positive signs, with talk of China being able to go beyond the current target of getting 15% of all energy from renewables by 2020, to 18% and possibly 20% – on a par with the EU and well ahead of the USA.

We may make it yet.

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