Nations agree to climate change accord in Denmark

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SALEM, Ohio — President Barack Obama committed the United States to cutting the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent by 2020, and by more than 80 percent by 2050.

The president and other heads of state formalized their commitments during last week’s United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen, Denmark. The mitigation target worldwide is to limit warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius.

The political agreement was struck in the Danish capital Dec. 19 after negotiations had come to a standstill, with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon intervening at the last minute to assuage nations that felt they had been excluded from parts of the negotiations.

When the summit’s agreement is completed, it will contain each country’s specific commitment, and path to reaching that level, but the agreement is not a legally binding, signed treaty. The individual country’s commitments must be listed in the accord before Jan. 31. (link opens .pdf of draft agreement)

The two-week-long United Nations conference in Copenhagen, attended by 128 heads of state and government, was marked by interruptions in negotiations due to divisions between states over transparency and other issues.

“The leaders were united in purpose, but they were not united in action,” Ban told reporters Dec. 21 in New York.

Starting point

The accord reached “provides the basis of understanding where the treaty negotiations begin,” Robert Orr, the U.N. assistant secretary-general for policy planning, said at a press conference in New York.

If the agreement attains the wide support that was indicated by nations in the closing session of the Copenhagen summit, then “you have a real center of gravity for the treaty negotiations throughout 2010,” he added.

The test, now, will be to create a way to see whether countries are keeping their commitments, and whether the accountability is credible.

Won’t be cheap

The international leaders also pledged financing that helps developing countries adapt. Obama said the U.S. will be part of a “fast-start funding,” known as the Copenhagen Green Climate Fund, that will commit $30 billion by 2012, and will be part of the global effort to commit $100 billion a year in financing to developing countries by 2020.

Domestically, President Obama said he remains committed to comprehensive legislation that will change the U.S. “energy economy,” and reduce dependence on foreign oil.

Devil’s in details

U.S. Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and the Clean Air and Nuclear Safety Subcommittee, said the president painted a nice picture of climate change progress, “but as I have said time and time before, the devil is in the details.

“I am very concerned that developing countries like China, India and Brazil are simply giving the idea of international participation lip-service, and I do not see much difference from the previous G8 agreement.”

Voinovich said he was interested in hearing more about the metrics of an agreement, like binding emission reduction targets, monitoring, verification and the sanctions connected with not fulfilling those commitments.”

But Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., saw it differently, saying, “The president has secured a critical agreement that includes an achievable mitigation target, transparency measures and a financing mechanism,” the three fundamentals also outlined in the House-passed Waxman-Markey bill.

Offsets and rural U.S.

In Copenhagen, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack spoke at a key event on clean energy investments and rural economies, emphasizing that “rural economies will benefit from incentives in comprehensive energy legislation that reward production of renewable energy and sequestration of greenhouse gases.”

He said a viable carbon offsets market — one that rewards farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners for stewardship activities — will play an important role in helping America reduce its dependence on oil.

Vilsack cited a USDA study found that the House-approved climate bill would increase farm expenses by $700 million, or 0.3 percent, from 2012-18, which would be offset by revenue from a carbon offset market, estimated by USDA at $1 billion a year in the near term and $15 billion in 2040.

But on the flip side, in terms of food production, a study by the International Food Policy Research Institute showed that rice and wheat yields in developing nations could decrease as much as 19 percent and 34 percent, respectively, by 2050 due to the effects of climate change.

Manure into energy

During the Copenhagen summit, Vilsack announced an agreement with U.S. dairy producers to accelerate adoption of manure-to-energy projects on American dairy farms.

With this Memorandum of Understanding, the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy — part of the Dairy Management Inc. — the USDA and U.S. dairy producers will work together to reach a 25 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

USDA will do so by undertaking research initiatives, allowing implementation flexibility, and enhancing marketing efforts of anaerobic digesters to dairy producers.

Anaerobic digester technology converts waste products, such as manure, into electricity. The technology utilizes generators that are fueled by methane captured from the animal manure. Currently, only about 2 percent of U.S. dairies that are candidates for a profitable digester are utilizing the technology.

A 700-head dairy operation with anaerobic digesters can generate enough electricity to power 200 homes.

Forest emissions

Vilsack also announced in Copenhagen, that the United States, joined by Australia, France, Japan, Norway, and the United Kingdom, agreed to dedicate a total of $3.5 billion as initial public finance toward slowing, halting and eventually reversing deforestation in developing countries.

Globally, agriculture is responsible for about 15 percent of emissions and deforestation is responsible for about 17 percent of emissions.

This funding will help facilitate immediate actions in REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) in 2010-2012.

The U.S. contribution to this effort will be $1 billion over the next three years, according to Vilsack.

These funds will be available for countries that develop REDD+ plans for their forest sector, according to their respective capabilities.

The United States is already working with international partners to protect forests across the globe, and is ramping up these programs, including carbon inventories, payment systems for ecosystem services, and assistance in helping forests adapt to a changing climate.

“While REDD+ can make it possible for developing countries to protect their forests, developed countries must also recognize their responsibility toward their own lands,” Vilsack said.

Research alliance

Also during the summit, the U.S. and 20 other countries announced the formation of the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases.

In the coming decades, agriculture will be faced with the twin challenges of not only reducing its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions but meeting an increase in global food demand.

Vilsack said the alliance will encourage the countries to pool talents and existing resources.

Over the next four years, USDA will expand agricultural climate change mitigation research by $90 million and contribute this research to the Global Research Alliance.

The increase will raise USDA’s agricultural climate change mitigation research portfolio to over $130 million over the next four years, up from a base level of funding of just over $10 million in FY 2009.

Overall, USDA expects to invest over $320 million in the next four years on climate change mitigation and adaptation research for agriculture.

The alliance will focus on research, development, and extension of technologies and practices to grow more food (and more climate-resilient food systems) without growing greenhouse gas emissions.

Anticipated products of the worldwide scientific collaboration include cost-effective and accurate ways of measuring greenhouse gas emissions and carbon stored in soil; new farming practices that reduce emissions and increase carbon storage in farmland in different countries; and farming methods that sustain yields while helping to mitigate climate change.

On the team

The countries which have agreed to participate in the GRA thus far include Australia, Canada, Columbia, Chile, Denmark, France, Germany, Ghana, India, Ireland, Japan, Malaysia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay, and Vietnam.

The next annual U.N. Climate Change Conference will take place at the end of 2010 in Mexico City.

(Compiled and edited by Editor Susan Crowell. She can be reached at 800-837-3419 or at editor@farmanddairy.com.)

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