Copenhagen: the ‘base year’ debate

Copenhagen: the ‘base year’ debate

On 25 November the White House announced a specific American promise to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 17% by 2020, 30% by 2025, 42% by 2030 and 83% by 2050. The announcement lifted some of the gloom that had settled following the final round of talks in Barcelona, when a full day of negotiating time was lost due to a staged walk out by the African nations, protesting against developed nations’ unwillingness to devote sufficient time to discussing targets.
 
However, the US announcement has met a skeptical response. Undoubtedly a move away from the Bush years, its positive impact has been lessened by US insistence that its reductions should be measured against the ‘base year’ of 2005 used for the Kerry-Boxer Bill. This is compared (unfavourably) with European Union promises of 20-30% reductions by 2020 measured against a base year of 1990.
 
NGOs and pressure groups at the Barcelona talks in early November 2009 were quick to point out that 2005 saw greenhouse gas emissions at an historic high in the US. Reductions measured against that year are therefore significantly easier to achieve, and produce much higher figures than could be achieved by measuring reductions against 1990 levels. Further, emissions have reduced against 2005 partly as a consequence of the recession that hit soon after.
 
The US argument is that 1990 is an arbitrary choice of base year. 2005 makes as much sense, and formulae could be produced to compare reductions on a like for like basis to achieve transparency in reporting and verification. NGOs and pressure groups were unconvinced, pointing out that far from being an arbitrary starting point, 1990 saw publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s first assessment report. That report is widely regarded as marking a ‘tipping point’ in global understanding and concern over the contribution of human activity to climate change. 1990 was also embedded as the base year for the purposes of the Kyoto protocol. For many, adhering to the Kyoto base year for measuring reductions has become something akin to an article of faith and a proof of genuine commitment.
 
The base year controversy is important. As in Barcelona, there is a risk that the extremely limited time for negotiation in Copenhagen will be eaten into by argument over the appropriate year to select.
 
US negotiators must balance that risk against the political art of the possible. By committing early to the 17% target, President Obama has arguably signaled US willingness to take part in a global agreement, while avoiding the risk of promising more than Congress can, or will, deliver. Quite apart from the Kerry-Boxer Bill, 67 Senate votes will be required to ratify any climate change treaty signed at, or after Copenhagen. If targets for greenhouse gas reductions are set too high, triggering fears of their impact on US competitiveness, any prospect of ratification would recede.