U.N. Climate Talks End in Cloud of Discord

By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 1, 2007

PARIS, Aug. 31 -- A five-day U.N. conference on climate change ended in Vienna on Friday with significant disagreements remaining about how countries should reduce greenhouse gas emissions and daunting estimates about the price tag for combating global warming.

Some industrialized countries balked at adopting language in the conference's final statement that would have set a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. They agreed in the end that this target would be a nonbinding starting point for future discussion.

Many industrialized countries, including the United States, are wary of strict and mandatory reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, fearing that such curbs could strike at core sectors of their economies.

Illustrating the range of opinion, the Group of 77 -- a bloc of developing nations -- said that industrialized countries should target an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2020, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in Japan on Friday that an equitable solution would base cuts on emissions per person and bring industrialized countries into line with developing ones.

A U.N. study found that it would cost at least $200 billion a year in additional funding to reduce the expected growth in emissions of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere and to return them to their current levels in 2030. By contrast, the U.S. government currently devotes about $6 billion a year to climate change programs.

The Vienna Climate Change Talks were attended by about 1,000 diplomats, scientists, business leaders and environmental activists from 158 countries. The conference was part of a series of meetings planned for the next several years to stimulate debate and negotiation on a global environmental accord to supplant the 1997 Kyoto Protocol when it expires in 2012.

The United States, the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, is not a party to the Kyoto agreement. But spurred by growing domestic pressure to deal with global warming, President Bush in May pledged to "convene a series of meetings of nations that produce most greenhouse gas emissions" and by the end of 2008 to "set a long-term global goal for reducing greenhouse gases."

The first of those meetings is planned for Sept. 27-28 in Washington, when 15 countries, the European Union and the United Nations will meet to formulate a process for achieving Bush's goal. The invited countries -- which include Russia, China, India, Mexico, Indonesia and Brazil -- have 64 percent of the world's population, produce 90 percent of the world's greenhouse gases, consume 76 percent of the world's annual primary energy supply, and account for 82 percent of the global economy, according to U.S. statistics.

Many of the countries, particularly the developing ones, are reluctant to cut emissions if it means sacrificing economic growth. China, for instance, is opening two coal-fired power plants a week to meet the demands of its booming economy.

Bush's plan foresees nonbinding commitments -- White House advisers call them "aspirational goals" -- for reducing emissions, while many other countries favor mandatory caps. The E.U., for instance, has pledged to reduce emissions by 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and by an additional 10 percent if the world's other developed countries match those cuts. The E.U.'s longer-term goal is to slash emissions to half of 1990 levels by 2050.

Harlan L. Watson, the State Department's senior climate negotiator and the top U.S. official at the Vienna talks, said that the United States would "look at" the E.U.'s goal of a 50 percent reduction during the Washington meeting but that it would "be a very tough target to meet." Targets are "useful if they're reasonably ambitious and attainable, but we don't believe that just making up numbers is a particularly useful exercise," he said.

Some environmental activists in Vienna questioned the motives and sincerity of Bush's initiative, saying they feared that it could evolve into an alternative to the U.N. and post-Kyoto process that would let big polluting countries evade the more stringent and obligatory gas reductions likely to be mandated by the world body.

"The question is, will the Washington meeting affirm that these major emitters are committed to keeping the climate safe, and agree to take on the kind of targets in reducing greenhouse gases that are necessary," said Hans Verolme, head of the World Wildlife Fund's Global Climate Change Program. "If the intention is to set up a competing track of talks, I would not like to see that."

Watson said the Washington meeting was meant to "complement" the U.N. process, because the countries attending will be the biggest economies and the biggest polluters, "and if they can't agree, there's little hope of reaching an agreement" in the U.N. talks.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company