Trudging toward Copenhagen: Leaders express optimism, U.S. promises emissions target

Having scaled back their ambitions for next month’s Copenhagen climate conference, world leaders are working to salvage the effort, and some are optimistic about the prospects for a meaningful step toward a legally binding international climate treaty.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of Australia — which despite its low profile has the highest per-capita emissions of any developed country — told the BBC on Monday that “there is a strong and high degree of political resolve among many of the leaders around the world to land a Copenhagen agreement.” Friis Arne Petersen, the Danish ambassador to the United States, channeled Barack Obama when he declared in The New York Times on Monday, “Yes we can reach a strong, comprehensive and global agreement next month.”

But all eyes remain on the two biggest emitters in the world, the United States and China. The countries’ leaders agreed to “a series of important new initiatives” last Tuesday in Beijing and vowed to “work toward a successful outcome in Copenhagen,” although their agreements remained vague. In a more concrete pledge, the White House has announced that its delegation to Copenhagen will propose a numeric figure for emissions reduction.

“The one thing the president has made clear is we want to take action consistent with the legislative process,” an administration official told ABC News on Monday. “[We] don’t want to get out ahead or be at odds with what can be produced through legislation. And so whatever number we put on the table will be with reference to what can come out of the legislative process.” That figure is likely to resemble the 17-percent reduction by 2020 laid out in the bill passed by the House of Representatives in June.

Still unknown is whether Obama himself will attend the conference. In keeping with Obama’s line from two weeks ago, a White House official says that the American president will go only if his presence can provide “a final impetus, a push, to the process.” ABC reports that Obama will make his decision in “the coming days.”

One potential wrinkle: Last week, hackers obtained and released thousands of emails from a climate research center in England, revealing some awkward — but not quite incriminating — exchanges between climate scientists. Global warming skeptics are citing these communications as proof of fraudulent scientific evidence of climate change, while one of the scientists suspects that the leak was deliberately timed to sabotage the Copenhagen conference, telling the AP, “It is right before the Copenhagen debate, I’m sure that is not a coincidence.”