WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will attend the U.N. climate summit next month in Denmark, taking with him a target to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent by 2020, the White House said Wednesday.
The pledge will not be part of a binding international treaty — the hopes for which have been dashed by the lack of a climate law coming out of Congress — but it will mimic the cuts passed by the House earlier this year. The Senate is still debating climate legislation.
"This provisional target" of 17 percent "is in line with current legislation in both chambers of Congress and demonstrates a significant contribution to a problem that the U.S. has neglected for too long," the White House said in a statement.
Administration officials don't want to repeat the mistake of the 1997 Kyoto climate accord, when the U.S. agreed to emission reductions but never implemented them because of strong political opposition at home. The U.S. never ratified the Kyoto agreement.
The president will attend the summit on Dec. 9 before heading to Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.
At least 75 world leaders will attend. Unlike Obama, most are expected to attend the final days of the Dec. 7-18 conference.
Cutting U.S. carbon dioxide emissions by one-sixth in just a decade would likely hike energy bills.
Carol Browner, Obama's assistant for energy and climate change, cited a $173-per-year estimated cost in a briefing Wednesday — a figure for a family of four calculated by the Congressional Budget Office. Republicans say costs would be higher.
But slashing those emissions could save millions of lives, mostly by reducing preventable deaths from heart and lung diseases, according to studies published this week in The Lancet British medical journal.
Cabinet officials going as well
The White House also said a half dozen Cabinet officials including Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke as well as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency — which is preparing regulations to cut greenhouse gases — will take part in the Copenhagen talks. It is the highest profile contingent of U.S. officials to ever take part in international climate negotiations.
Some environmentalists said they hoped the president's trip would be more than ceremonial.
"The Copenhagen climate summit is not about a photo opportunity," said Kyle Ash, climate policy adviser for Greenpeace USA. "It's about getting a global agreement to stop climate chaos. President Obama needs to be there at the same time as all the other wold leaders."
But others said the visit will reinforce the U.S. government's shift on climate policy from that of the Bush administration, which rejected the 1997 Kyoto climate accords out of hand and over eight years steadfastly opposed broad mandatory reductions in greenhouse gases.
"It's a clear signal to the world that we're serious ... that he is committed to this issue," said Jake Schmidt, international climate director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Schmidt cautioned not to expect Obama to "bring back the final deal" on climate, but he said it would help to establish momentum for an agreement next year.
Obama's negotiating position for the talks in Copenhagen has been hampered by slow progress on a climate bill in the Senate.
The House bill sets a 17 percent reduction target for emissions by 2020 from 2005 levels. A Senate version aims for a 20 percent cut.
The European Union is pressing for more aggressive cuts and has pledged a 20 percent drop in its emissions compared to 1990 levels.
Template, not treaty expected
The conference had originally been intended to produce a new global climate change treaty to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
However, hopes for a legally binding agreement have dimmed lately, with leaders saying the summit is more likely to produce a template for future action to cut emissions blamed for global warming.
While Obama himself tried to tamp down expectations during his eight-day trip to Asia earlier this month, he also called on world leaders to come to an agreement that has "immediate operational effect" and is not just a political declaration.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.