Hard Choices on Climate Can Wait for Next President, Aides Indicate

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 12, 2007; 5:33 AM

BALI, Indonesia, Dec. 11 -- U.S. officials at U.N. climate negotiations here said Tuesday that they would not embrace any overall binding goals for cutting global greenhouse gas emissions before President Bush leaves office, essentially putting off specific U.S. commitments until a new administration assumes power in 2009, according to several participants.

In closed-door meetings, senior U.S. climate negotiator Harlan L. Watson said the administration considers several aspects of a draft resolution circulated by U.N. officials unacceptable, according to an administration official and other negotiators. Watson specifically objected to language calling for a halt in the growth of worldwide emissions within 10 to 15 years, to be followed by measures that by 2050 would drive emissions down to less than half the 2000 levels.

The administration also suggested eliminating language in the draft calling for "sufficient, predictable, additional and sustainable financial resources" to help poor nations adapt to climate change, on the grounds that it is vague.

"We've been very pro-active, we've been very collaborative, very constructive," said James L. Connaughton, who chairs the White House Council on Environmental Quality and is in Bali this week to participate in the talks. "What we're looking for is a broad negotiating agenda in a road map so we can cover a range of topics the president articulated earlier this year" on climate change.

Several environmental activists said that although the administration's position is somewhat more flexible now than it was two years ago -- when it essentially rejected the idea of conducting any formal dialogue on replacing the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on climate with a new binding agreement--its stance leaves all tough decisions on how to address global warming up to the next president. In addition, they warned that the approach U.S. officials are taking could further alienate rapidly industrializing nations such as China, India and Brazil, which are seeking financial incentives to cut their emissions.

"The United States once again can't help itself from playing games, and it's a high-stakes game," said Kevin Knobloch, president of the advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists, who was to meet with Connaughton along with other environmental leaders on Wednesday morning. "They're going to play this game to the bitter end."

The U.S. position is expected to hold sway here not only because the United States plays such an important role on the world stage, but because negotiators are fashioning a consensus document that needs to be approved unanimously by the nearly 190 participating countries.

In fact, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said in a press conference with reporters Wednesday afternoon that the U.S. opposition to language calling for industrialized countries to reduce emissions between 25 and 40 percent by 2020 had effectively taken the question of specific pollution cuts off the table at the Bali conference.

"Practically speaking, this will have to be negotiated down the road," Ki-Moon said, adding that the language reflected the current scientific consensus on climate change. "There needs to be a target, whether it's a short term, medium or long-term" goal.

Connaughton said the administration's opposition to specific targets, such as the U.N. draft's call for an emissions cut of between 25 and 40 percent by 2020, reflects the concerns of "many countries" that some nations are trying to force a specific outcome for the talks before they actually begin. "It's hard to wrap up a negotiation the day you start it," he said, adding that Bush plans to spend the next year working with leaders of other major economies to determine a long-term goal for cutting emissions worldwide.

The United States, along with Russia and Japan, is hoping to substitute less specific language stating that, in light of this year's report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, "an effective response to unequivocal scientific evidence . . . will require enhanced national efforts and joint action by all countries aimed at deeper global reductions of greenhouse gas emissions."

Despite that endorsement of the IPCC, which this week received the Nobel Peace Prize along with former vice president Al Gore, administration officials also opposed a proposal to ask the scientists for an updated report before negotiators meet in 2009 to develop a new global climate pact.

"That's a huge amount of work for the IPCC to do, and they've already done great work," Connaughton said. "We should declare the IPCC a success and move forward with putting together an aggressive" climate agreement.

Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, the top science adviser to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and an IPCC contributor, said in an interview that he did not understand how the United States can praise the IPCC "and when it comes to something like this, block it." Schellnhuber, who is participating in the negotiations, added that if the administration succeeds in taking the specifics out of the Bali text, "it is just ignoring" the scientific evidence. "An agreement on nothing is not a good agreement," he said.

While part of the debate here focused on how industrialized nations will address their carbon emissions over the next several years, negotiators were also exploring how to incorporate major emitters from the developing world and the world's most vulnerable nations in the next agreement. China, for instance, is asking industrialized countries to provide more money to ease the transfer of clean energy technology overseas, while poor nations whose deforestation is accelerating global warming are seeking financial compensation for protecting their remaining forests.

While the United States endorses both of these goals in principle, it has balked at specifying how much money developed countries should contribute to such efforts.

Blairo Borges Maggi, governor of the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, said regions like his need "an insurance policy" to ensure that the 20 percent of Brazil's forests that are unprotected will remain standing.

"It seems like it's a proposal that everyone likes in theory, but in practice, when it's time to put your hand in your pocket, nobody wants to," said Borges Maggi, shoving his hand in his pants pocket as if to pull out money.

David Waskow, of the humanitarian group Oxfam America, said U.S. resistance to articulating how much money industrialized nations could provide to help poor nations adapt to a warming world is "in subtle ways, creating trouble for that global deal. . . . If this deal is going to come together, these concerns about equity have to be addressed."

David Doniger, climate center policy director at the advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council, said if the administration succeeds in deferring specifics about curbing emissions until early 2009, negotiators might still be able to forge an agreement that year to follow the Kyoto agreement, which expires in 2012, but it would be hard.

"It can be done," he said. "But it's going to be a very busy year."

Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who came to the Bali talks for a day-and-a-half this week, said he believes that the administration wants "a document that keeps the process moving," but that delegates are looking for more concrete leadership from nations such as the United States and China.

"There's a question mark of how long is it going to take the bigfoots to step forward and do what they need to do, or will that happen in 2009 with the right leader?" Kerry said. "You need to believe in this issue. You can't just do it on the side because it's an obligation that somebody throws at you. This has to become a crusade, a passion, a monumental undertaking."

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