By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 12, 2008
POZNAN, Poland -- Several major developing countries that had long resisted making specific commitments to combat global warming are laying out concrete plans to curb their greenhouse gas emissions at the United Nations climate conference here, a shift that could mark the most positive development in the slow-moving negotiations.
Getting the emerging economies -- such as China, Brazil and South Africa -- to limit their escalating carbon footprint has been seen as crucial to the prospects for a future global climate pact. For years these nations have argued that the industrial world must first own up to its historic responsibility and commit to binding cuts, while the United States and other developed countries have countered that they cannot afford to limit emissions until their international economic competitors do the same.
The past two weeks, however, have seen an easing of that impasse. Brazil has pledged to cut its annual deforestation rate by 70 percent by 2017 -- which could reduce the country's greenhouse gas emissions by 30 to 45 percent over the next decade -- and Mexico has vowed to bring its carbon emissions to 50 percent below their 2002 levels by 2050.
Earlier this year, South Korea pledged to set a climate target next year, and South Africa approved a plan under which its emissions would plateau between 2020 and 2025 and begin declining between 2030 and 2035. India outlined a national plan that would boost solar power production. And Kazakhstan moved this week to join the 1997 Kyoto Protocol with a plan to bring its greenhouse gas output back to 1992 levels by 2012.
Annie Petsonk, international counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund's climate and air program, called the pledges "the most significant development here" in Poznan. "That is countries voting with their feet, joining the carbon market, saying they're coming in regardless of what happens with the process here."
Rae Kwon Chung, South Korea's climate ambassador, said he hopes his country will be "a trend-setter" by adopting a climate goal and proposing an international climate registry that would track whether developing nations are curbing emissions.
"The current culture is of mistrust and finger-pointing. It's 'you first,' '[no,] you first,' " Chung said. "We do not share the same historic responsibility. But we will make a contribution commensurate to our capability."
Paula Dobriansky, undersecretary of state for democracy and global affairs, who leads the U.S. delegation, said Thursday that she had made a point of telling leaders of the emerging economies that the administration appreciates their proposals, and said, "They're noteworthy, and they provide really an important foundation on which to build."
These overtures, coupled with an earlier proposal by China to reduce its "energy intensity" by 20 percent by 2010, are giving negotiators some hope that they can ultimately forge a new agreement aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions enough to avoid a predicted global temperature rise of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, which scientists say could be catastrophic. The new pact would replace the Kyoto treaty, which expires in 2012, and which the United States never accepted.
"One of the things that has constrained this process in the past is the impression that developing countries are not acting on climate change," said Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, which hosts the talks. "In fact, nothing could be further from the truth."
Still, the question remains whether these measures are aggressive enough to curb global warming, and whether developing nations will meet their targets, which they insist are voluntary. Moreover, several made it clear they expect industrialized nations to help fund the technology to make this transition possible.
Marthinus van Schalkwyk, South Africa's environment minister, said his country and others recognize that they need to take action in a way that is "measurable, reportable and verifiable," as outlined in the interim climate agreement reached last year in Bali. Any final deal between the industrialized and developing worlds, he added, comes down to: "At what level do they feel we are doing enough, and at what level do we feel they are doing enough?"
The new pledges also represent a challenge to the industrialized nations. Tasso Rezende de Azevedo, director general of the Brazilian Forest Service, said his nation's plan shows that developed countries have been too timid when outlining their climate targets.
"If we can talk about decreasing [emissions] 50 percent by 2018, which is in 10 years, why can't the industrialized countries commit themselves to decreasing 80 percent by 2050, which is in 50 years?" he asked.
Some environmentalists and local activists said the major emitters in the developing world will have to do more. Fred Boltz, vice president for conservation strategies at the advocacy group Conservation International, noted that Brazil's pledge to reduce deforestation from more than 4,600 square miles a year to 1,900 square miles annually still leaves the Amazon vulnerable to ecological degradation.
"It's a great step forward, but it's not a leap, and they can leap," Boltz said, adding that Brazil has remote sensing equipment that allows it to precisely track the deforestation. "They can make deeper cuts, and I think we can ask that of any nation."
Manoel Cunha, who represents 80,000 Amazonian families as president of Brazil's National Council of Rubber Tappers, said the government would have to change its policies to achieve its climate goals. "The incentives in Brazil have always been directed at those who have destroyed the forest," he said.
Fernando Tudela, Mexico's vice minister of environment and natural resources, emphasized the need for financial help from richer nations. At a news conference Thursday, he said that Mexico will set "aspirational goals" but that the extent to which they would be met "will depend on the kind of support we can find in the international regime."
A study published by the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the University of Colorado in the journal Climate Research suggests most developing countries are ill-equipped to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions significantly in light of the economic and technological disparities between them and industrialized nations. While poorer nations generally have smaller economies, the study found, they are responsible for about 47 percent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions, partly because of their inefficient energy and transport systems.
"There is simply no evidence that developing countries will somehow become wealthier and be in a position to install more environmentally friendly technologies," said Patricia Romero Lankao of the atmospheric research center, the study's lead author. "We always knew that reducing greenhouse gas emissions was going to be a challenge, but now it looks like we underestimated the magnitude of this problem."
South Africa's van Schalkwyk said the two sides will reach a final agreement next December in Copenhagen only if it includes language on "funding, finance and technology transfer" that will help developing countries shift to low-carbon economies.
"It will be a hard reach to get that," he said, but essential. "Otherwise the deal will have no integrity whatsoever. It will be words on paper."