Making good on a Jan. 31 deadline under the Copenhagen Accord, 55 countries submitted their commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the secretariat of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC).

Developed countries submitted emission-reduction targets for 2020, while developing countries submitted action plans for slowing emissions between now and 2020. These countries, which include developed nations such as the United States, Europe and Japan and emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil, account for 78 percent of global emissions.

That figure is encouraging compared to the relatively limited coverage of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. The countries subject to emission-reduction targets under that treaty — all of them developed nations — account for only 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. And the U.S., the No. 2 emitter, has no obligations under the protocol because it withdrew under the Bush administration. It is significant that the U.S. and countries such as China and India, which also have no emission-reduction obligations under the Kyoto Protocol, have made commitments under the new accord. The Copenhagen Accord is a step forward for the worldwide fight against global warming.

Yet it also has clear shortcomings. The 193 countries that took part in the 15th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP15) in Copenhagen in December failed to form a binding agreement on how to combat global warming beyond 2012, when the Kyoto Protocol expires. The voluntary accord that they came up with in Copenhagen lacks any enforcing mechanism.

Although it sets the goal of stopping global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, the Copenhagen Accord fails to set an overall emission-reduction target for developed countries to meet by 2020 and also lacks a long-term global target for 2050.

In the commitments submitted by Jan. 31, the 27-nation European Union pledged to reduce emissions 20 percent from 1990 levels, adding that it will raise that target to 30 percent if other countries also take an aggressive approach. Japan pledged to cut emissions 25 percent from 1990 levels on the condition that all the other major countries set high targets and that a “fair and effective international framework in which all major economies participate” is established.

As for the U.S., it has set itself the target of reducing emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels. China, the No. 1 emitter, pledged to cut emissions per unit of gross domestic product by 40 percent to 45 percent from 2005 levels. India’s target is a cut of 20 percent to 25 percent per unit of GDP from 2005 levels. Brazil pledged to reduce emissions by 36.1 percent to 38.9 percent from projected 2020 levels.

Japan’s target is ambitious. The current reality does not warrant optimism about its chances of being met. Even Japan’s commitments under the Kyoto Protocol seem unlikely to be met: Japan must reduce emissions in the 2008-2012 period by 6 percent from 1990 levels, but its emissions are currently several percent above 1990 levels.

The Hatoyama administration should quickly decide on a definite, multifaceted plan that involves widespread use of renewable energy, enhanced energy conservation, carbon taxes and emissions trading. A road map is needed to show that the target is feasible.

The administration also should rouse public interest in and discussion about developing a low-carbon society. Without achieving demonstrable success at home, Japan will be unable to persuade other countries to strive for impressive emission reductions.

Enthusiasm about other submitted commitments is also subject to some restraint. Although the U.S. and China together account for 41 percent of global emissions, the U.S. target translates to a reduction of only 3 percent to 4 percent from 1990 levels. The total amount of emissions from China will almost certainly increase because of its projected high economic growth, as is the case for other emerging nations.

A sense of reality is provided by the realization that even if the targets of all developed countries were achieved, it would not be enough to cut emissions by 20 percent from 1990 levels.

The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change adopts the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities.” Developed countries have reaped massive economic benefits through the consumption of fossil fuels, so they clearly have a great responsibility to make exemplary efforts on this issue, but emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil also share responsibility for the Earth’s future.

At COP16, scheduled to begin in late November in Mexico, all countries need to strive to create a binding agreement that builds on the strengths of the existing accord.

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