U.S. Leadership in Copenhagen

Nov 9, 2009 | Peter Nelson

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While few international observers expect major breakthroughs at the United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen, the Obama administration still has a chance to recapture U.S. leadership on climate policy by taking a few simple actions, according to RFF researchers Nigel Purvis and Andrew Stevenson.


Even though it is unlikely that congressional action will have been completed by the start of the Conference of Parties meeting in December, President Obama should offer a forward- leaning statement to reaffirm his deep commitment to climate action, say Purvis and Stevenson in a new RFF backgrounder. Then, the United States should lock-in the less controversial elements of a Copenhagen accord, which would give momentum to international climate talks and help narrow future negotiations. Finally, the United States should propose setting a global deadline in the second half of 2010 by which date all nations must specify their 2020 climate commitments.

Substantively, the president could embrace several important principles for international climate cooperation, write Purvis and Stevenson. Among others, the president could:  
  • Limit warming. Acknowledge the scientific view that global average temperatures ought not to exceed 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, as agreed to in 2009 by the G8 and Major Economies Forum.   
  • Cut emissions by half. Propose a collective goal to reduce global emissions 50 percent by 2050, as agreed to by the G8 in 2009.
  • Reduce emissions by 80 percent in developed countries. Call for developed countries to set a goal of collectively reducing their emissions 80 percent by 2050, as agreed to by the G8 in 2009.  
  • Global peak year. Ask all nations to agree on a collective goal to reach a peak of global emissions by a defined year, such as 2020 or 2025. The G8 and Major Economies Forum in 2009 agreed that global and national emissions should peak “as soon as possible.”
Following such an agenda, Purvis and Stevenson believe, “would allow for substantial progress in Copenhagen, give momentum to global climate talks, and increase pressure for swift enactment of domestic climate legislation.” Read more in the full backgrounder titled, "U.S. Leadership in Copenhagen."