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Climate talks remain alive, but so do many obstacles

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 29, 2009

By offering concrete emission targets last week, the United States and China have resuscitated global climate talks that were headed toward an impasse. But the details that have yet to be resolved -- including the money that industrialized countries would offer poorer ones as part of an agreement -- suggest a political deal remains a heavy lift for the 192 countries set to convene in Copenhagen in little more than a week.

Negotiators aim to produce a blueprint for a legally binding international treaty that would replace the Kyoto Protocol when it expires in 2012 and govern individual countries' greenhouse gas emissions.

Although the proposals from the world's two biggest greenhouse-gas emitters have boosted the prospects for a deal, they demonstrate something else as well: No one wants to shoulder the blame for failure at Copenhagen, even if it means the final outcome falls short of what many had envisioned a year or two ago. The U.S. pledge to cut its emissions by 2020 and China's offer to lower its carbon dioxide output relative to the size of its economy by the same date are more modest than what their negotiating partners had demanded.

The fact that countries are defining their climate goals in varied ways -- including different baseline years and efficiency targets rather than absolute cuts -- makes it hard to assess their commitments. The United States has pledged cuts that are modest in the first decade but ambitious 15 and 20 years from now, while China has set a target that could amount to a meaningful reduction if the country's growth rate slows somewhat.

Keya Chatterjee, the U.S. director for the World Wildlife Fund climate change program, likened the developments to "a phoenix . . . rising from the ashes." She added that, under a best-case scenario, "It's not a deal that's going to solve the problem of climate change a hundred percent. . . . But it is a deal that's going to create a foundation and an international architecture for resolving this issue over time."

A senior Obama administration official offered a more cautious assessment: "There's a very real chance of getting this done, but hurdles remain."

The biggest remaining obstacle is money, including how much the developed world will give developing nations to cope with the impact of global warming and to acquire technology to curb their emissions. The United States has not said how much it would pay into any global fund, which the Europeans have estimated would require at least $10 billion annually beginning next year.

And on Thursday, Brazilian President Luiz InĂ¡cio Lula da Silva said at a meeting of Amazon nations that wealthier countries must "pay the price" for protecting rain forests that are vulnerable to clear-cutting and burning by farmers and ranchers, activities that help fuel global warming.

Connie Hedegaard, the Danish minister for the climate conference, said "the decision on finance" was the most pressing issue developed countries face.

The Obama administration has allocated about $1.2 billion toward international climate programs as part of its proposed fiscal 2010 budget. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said in an interview that it would take at least twice as much to help seal a deal in Copenhagen.

China's announcement Thursday that it would send Premier Wen Jiabao to the talks and improve its economy's energy efficiency -- by as much as 45 percent by 2020, compared with 2005 levels -- makes it easier for other countries to commit to a treaty, but it remains unclear how the outside world would verify these cuts.

"It's great the Chinese have come forward with a plan, but are they willing to have that part of a binding agreement?" said Stephen Eule, vice president for climate and technology at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Energy Institute.

South Korea's climate change ambassador, Chung Rae-kwon, whose country just pledged to cut its emissions 4 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, wrote in an e-mail to The Washington Post that China's proposal was "a great step forward" but added, "The issue now is how this Chinese target can be captured in the agreement to be achieved in Copenhagen."

Several U.S. senators have said they cannot endorse domestic climate legislation or an international treaty unless it ensures that such economic competitors as China and India will take steps to curb their carbon dioxide output.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said in an interview that it was hard to determine whether the Chinese announcement addresses that concern. He added that he would rather have Obama focus on building more nuclear power plants and electrifying the U.S. auto fleet than "making trips to Copenhagen, trying to convince China to make itself poorer when so many people there live on less than a dollar a day."

Daniel Price, an international economics adviser on the climate talks under former president George W. Bush, said negotiators still must resolve a range of issues, such as protecting the intellectual property rights of technological innovators and ensuring the integrity of any carbon trading scheme created under the pact.

The need for consensus under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which governs the talks, offers further complications. A bloc of African nations agreed this month on their bottom line for any deal but have not disclosed it. Major developing countries such as China, India and Brazil say they, too, will offer a unified position at the negotiations, but they have yet to determine it.

India's environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, told the Hindustan Times newspaper that China's announcement was "a wake-up call. . . . We have to think hard about our climate strategy now and look for flexibility."

Dominick DellaSala, president of the National Center for Conservation Science and Policy, said the emerging compromise could prompt negotiators to "lock in" less ambitious emission targets in the short term.

Even Hedegaard, the Danish minister, noted that the current climate pledges by developing countries amount to an 18 percent reduction below 1990 emission levels by 2020, but the United States is pledging to cut emissions by about 4 percent by then. Europeans and many scientists have called for a 25 to 40 percent cut.

Cutting a political deal now, argued Hedegaard and environmental advocates such as Chatterjee, makes more sense than holding out for a perfect agreement.

"If we don't resolve it now, it's not going to get any easier," Chatterjee said. "Time doesn't really help resolve issues of equity."

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