Countdown to Copenhagen: A change in the political climate on emissions

As the critical global warming conference looms, Michael McCarthy detects a new atmosphere which suggests that a significant agreement can still be achieved

It hasn't made massive headlines in Europe; in fact it's hardly been noticed. But over the last fortnight, three big countries have made major new pledges to cut their emissions of carbon dioxide from industry, transport and deforestation which is causing climate change.

Since 12 November, Russia, South Korea and Brazil have all announced new targets for cutting CO2, leading to a significant improvement in hopes for the outcome of the Copenhagen climate summit, which is now only two weeks away – and which, it was announced yesterday, at least 65 world leaders will attend.

For the essence of the Copenhagen deal, which it is hoped will halt the progress of potentially-disastrous global warming, is that there should be emissions cuts promised by both sides, which in this case are the rich industrialised countries on the one hand, and the poorer developing countries on the other (although some of the developing nations, led by China, are now major carbon emitters themselves) – and this is exactly what has happened in the last few days.

Russia, a major developed economy, promised on 18 November to slash its emissions by 20 to 25 per cent on 1990 levels by 2020, nearly doubling its previous target.

South Korea, which is still classed as a developing country but is highly industrialised, promised on 17 November to cut its emissions to four per cent below 2005 levels by 2020 – which is the first absolute cut in emissions pledged by any developing nation, and an enormous step forward.

And Brazil announced on 13 November that it would seek to make a 36 to 39 per cent cut in its "business as usual" emissions growth by 2020 – which is not a binding target, but a very promising beginning.

These are very significant straws in the wind ahead of the summit in the Danish capital, indicating that nations on both sides of the world's wealth divide are coming round to the view that doing nothing is no longer an option for anyone.

The hope is, of course, that the leaders of the two camps, the USA and China, the world's biggest CO2 emitters, accounting between them for 40 per cent of the total, will make pledges of their own to cut carbon – otherwise no deal will be possible. So far, they have not.

Yet it is looking increasingly likely this week that the US will after all put an emissions target on the table, resolving what we characterised here last week as President Barack Obama's lonely dilemma – can he act ahead of the Senate, where US climate legislation is currently stalled?

At the weekend Mr Obama's climate envoy, Todd Stern, said that the administration recognised that America had to come forward with a target for cutting its emissions.

"What we are looking at is to see whether we could put down essentially a provisional number that would be contingent on our legislation," he said. "We are looking at that, there are people we need to consult with." It does not take much imagination to guess that the people to be consulted are US senators, as without 60 of the Senate's 100 votes in its favour, the current climate bill could be filibustered, or talked out.

Adding to growing optimism about a possible deal is the fact that Mr Stern's comments come on top of Mr Obama's joint statement with the Chinese premier, Hu Jintao, after their meeting in Beijing last week, which said specifically that an accord should include emission-reduction targets for rich nations, and a declaration of action plans to ease greenhouse-gas emissions in developing countries.

If America leads, will China follow? That is the great unknown. Like all developing countries – apart from the new exception South Korea, as mentioned above – China does not yet have any targets for cutting its greenhouse gases and has long been resistant to the idea.

But it is coming to accept that it must move away from "business as usual". In September, Mr Hu told the United Nations climate summit in New York that China was setting out to reduce the energy intensity of its economy – that is, the amount of energy needed to produce a unit of output – by "a notable margin".

What that margin might be, still remains wrapped in mystery, but without specific numbers – US numbers and Chinese numbers – Copenhagen will fail.

Most countries have now put numbers on the table, as can be seen from The Independent's guide to Who Is Doing What (in terms of climate change) on this page.

Several of the rich countries have upped their ambition considerably in the course of the year, with Japan going furthest: the new administration of Yukio Hatoyama promised a 25 per cent CO2 cut on 1990 levels by 2020 almost as soon as it took office in September. With Russia and Australia also making new pledges, Canada is now the rich nation with the weakest climate ambition.

"These developments are welcome, but we now need to see really ambitious moves from the key players," said Keith Allott, head of climate change for WWF-UK. "Many people seem to have written Copenhagen off, but there is still all to play for."

The fact that so many world leaders have now agreed to go to Copenhagen increases the chances of success, senior British government sources believe. Although the Danes did not release the names of the 65 who will definitely attend, it is known that most European heads of state or government will be going, including Gordon Brown (the first to announce his intention to go, back in September), President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, as well as Mr Hatoyama of Japan and President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil.

It is thought increasingly likely that Mr Obama will now fly to Copenhagen: the invitation from the Danish prime minister, lars Lokke Rasmussen, is for the last two days of the conference.

"Leaders will not want to go to Copenhagen and come away without an agreement, which would so obviously be their failure," a senior Whitehall source said last night.

"Having the leaders at Copenhagen doesn't guarantee success. But it makes it much harder for it to fail."

Who has pledged what? Medium-term CO2 emissions-reduction targets


China has a detailed climate-change action plan; it was the first developing country to adopt one, in 2007. The plan envisages a rapid expansion of renewable energy and a big improvement in energy efficiency, among other steps, but it does not include any specific binding target for cutting national CO2 emissions. However, China recognises there will have to be some sort of figure on the table at Copenhagen, showing a move away from "business as usual". This may refer to the energy intensity ot the economy, which Premier Hu has pledged to reduce.


The US will have to put a CO2 reduction target on the table at Copenhagen or there will be no deal. The figure is likely to emerge from the two cilmate bills in Congress, either a 14 per cent reduction on 2005 levels (the House bill) or a 20 per cent reduction on 2005 levels (the Senate bill), both to be implemented by 2020.


The 27-member states of the European Union have agreed to cut their total emissions by 20 per cent by 2020, whatever happens, and to increase this figure to 30 per cent by the same date if there is a Copenhagen deal


The UK is part of the EU agreement, but Britain's own individual pledge is to cut emissions by 34 per cent on 1990 levels by 2020. The idea of this being increased after a Copenhagen deal has not yet been agreed.


Russia anounced at the EU-Russia summit on 19 November that it would cut its emissions by 20-25 per cent on 1990 levels by 2020. Previous target was 10 to 15 per cent by that date.


India has a climate-change programme, featuring a mass increase in solar power, but it has hitherto seemed a long way from setting any sort of numerical climate target.


New premier Yukio Hatoyama set an ambitious new climate target for Japan as soon as he took office in September - a 25 per cent reduction on 1990 levels by 2020, in a move which has been widely praised.


Canada has said it will cut CO2 by 20 per cent on 2006 levels, which is equivalent to a 3 per cent cut on 1990 levels, by 2020. This target has been criticised and is widely regarded as inadequate.

South Korea

Last week South Korea set the first ever target by a developing country for an absolute reduction in emissions - minus 4 per cent in a 2005 baseline by 2020. The move has been warmly welcomed.

South Africa

No sign of any sort of numerical target as yet. South Africa has a "long-term mitigation scenario" which identifies a range of climate-friendly actions, such as increased energy efficiency.


A year ago Mexico announced the first developing country target - 50 per cent on 2002 levels by 2050. In medium term it says it will reduce "business as usual" emissions growth by 20 per cent.


Australia says it will reduce its emissions by up to 24 per cent on 1990 levels by 2020, depending on what happens internationally. It will do a certain amount anyway, starting from 5 per cent.


Brazil recently agreed it would make a cut in "business as usual" - that is, in the rate of growth of its CO2 emissions, of 36 to 39 per cent by 2020. Not an absolute cut but a big step forward.


Indonesia announced in the summer it would make a cut in "business as usual" emissions growth of 26 to 41 per cent by 2020, if the country has international support.


Norway has announced it will carry out a straight cut of its CO2 emissions of 40 per cent by 2020 on a 1990 baseline. This is the most ambitious climate target anywhere in the world.