There could still be life after all in Copenhagen. President Obama's offer to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17 per cent could spur the climate change summit into some meaningful action, it is hoped.
The US president will make the offer when he addresses the Copenhagen climate change meet - the visit itself is touted as a highly positive symbolic gesture.
Officials said the US would pledge a 17% cut in emissions from 2005 levels by 2020, 30% by 2025, 42% by 2030 and 83% by 2050.
Mr Obama will outline a "pathway" towards the US goals at the summit, a White House statement said.
It described the cuts as "a significant contribution to a problem that the US has neglected for too long."
Obama, who campaigned on a pledge to tackle climate change, has been under pressure to attend the meeting and offer for the first time a 2020 reduction target. The U.S. has faced criticism for failing to enact legislation to limit heat-trapping pollution and create an emissions-trading market.
"The president going to Copenhagen will give positive momentum to the negotiations," Michael Froman, Obama's deputy national security adviser for international economics, told reporters Wednesday. "We think it will enhance the prospects for success."
But the White House qualified the 17 percent emissions reduction target by saying that it is tabled, "in the context of an overall deal in Copenhagen that includes robust mitigation contributions from China and the other emerging economies."
The G8 nations and major economies have tentatively agreed to attempt to prevent global warming from reaching dangerous levels of more than 2°Celsius above the pre-industrial temperature, or around 1.2°C above today's level. Scientific evidence shows that this requires global emissions of greenhouse gases to peak before 2020 and then be cut by at least 50 percent of their 1990 levels by 2050.
The proposed U.S. 17 percent target is lower than those announced by other governments. The European Union has pegged its target at 20 percent and said that could be raised to 30 percent if other nations go higher too.
Japan has announced the goal of cutting emissions 25 percent by 2020 but said last month it could back away from that goal if an international climate change deal at Copenhagen is not achieved.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told an EU-Russian summit Friday that Russia would increase its emission reduction target for 2020 from a 10-to-15 percent cut below 1990 levels to a 22-to-25 percent cut.
President Obama and visiting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh both committed Tuesday to "significant mitigation actions," in other words, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, at Copenhagen.
Last week while visiting Beijing, President Obama and China's President Hu Jintao announced the same commitment. But neither India nor China has announced a numerical greenhouse gas reductions target.
The lack of a clear offer from the US will no longer be an excuse for China and India to remain slippery about their own commitments. That brings the prospect of a deal significantly closer, it is argued.
The Obama administration is still taking a risk. The 17 per cent cut has been approved by the House, in the Waxman-Markey bill passed in June, but legislation proposing a 20 per cent reduction has not yet gone through the Senate. It will not pass this year, and may fail next year. If that happens, Mr Obama faces the prospect of having to renege on any deal the US reaches at Copenhagen. But unless he took that risk, it looked quite likely there would be no deal at all, a commentator said.
Incidentally while the very decision of the President to turn up at Copenhagen is being touted as a significant victory for climate change efforts, it may be noted that he is planning to be there on Wednesday December 9, in the middle of the first week of the two-week talks.
Byt the time the delegates of 192 countries get down to the tough task of thrashing out a new deal to replace the Kyoto treaty, Mr Obama will have been and gone, stopped off in Oslo to collect his Nobel prize, and flown home to get ready for the holidays. Some indication of his 'seriousness,' of his known tendency to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds perhaps.
Environmental group Friends of the Earth were cautious in their welcome.
"Obama's pledge to go to Copenhagen is a welcome and significant development - but he must adopt a 'Yes we can' attitude in the UN climate talks if he is to earn his Nobel prize," spokesman Tom Picken said.
"The US is the world's biggest per capita polluter. It has a moral responsibility to take the lead in securing a strong and fair agreement."
Will Obama indeed take the lead, or will it all be mere rhetoric and photo-ops? One has to wait and see.