In Copenhagen, U.S. pushes for emissions cuts from China, developing nations

After a 12-day summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, 193 leaders from around the world reached an agreement on how to combat climate change.
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 10, 2009

COPENHAGEN -- Two top Obama administration officials arrived Wednesday at the U.N.-sponsored climate talks that opened this week offering both diplomacy and a tough line: The United States is willing to be a full partner in fighting climate change, but the real problem is with China and the developing world.

The day began with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson detailing the many measures President Obama has taken to cut greenhouse gases in the United States, telling a packed audience at the U.S. pavilion in the Bella Center, "We are seeking robust engagement with all of our partners around the world."

But two hours later, the U.S. special envoy for climate change, Todd Stern, made clear that the United States sees carbon reductions by China and other major developing countries as "a core part of this negotiation."

"Emissions are emissions. You've just got to do the math," Stern told reporters, citing estimates that 97 percent of future emissions growth will come from the developing world. "If you care about the science, and we do, there is no way to solve this problem by giving the major developing countries a pass."

Responding to Stern, China's climate change ambassador, Yu Qingtai, suggested that the United States needed to reexamine its negotiating stance. "What they should do is some deep soul-searching," Yu told reporters.

The sharp exchange of words between the two nations that together account for roughly 40 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions underscores just one of the divisions within the international community on climate.

The small Pacific island nation of Tuvalu, threatened by rising sea levels, tried unsuccessfully Wednesday to get delegates to consider a legally binding new protocol that would have included a more ambitious climate target and mandatory greenhouse gas cuts for both industrialized and major emerging economies. "This is a moral issue," said Tuvalu's delegate, Ian Fry.

While China and India joined Saudi Arabia in blocking the motion, the dispute sparked an impromptu protest just outside the main session by roughly 100 environmental activists, who chanted "Tuvalu!" and "Legal Treaty Now!" U.N. police closed the plenary area in response.

Jackson used soft diplomacy to address the concerns of some of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, meeting with farm women from Africa in a session organized by Oxfam. Constance Okollet, a peasant farmer from eastern Uganda, told the EPA administrator how her village was first destroyed by floods in 2007 and then battered by drought as the residents tried to rebuild.

"From what I saw, she really felt for us and was touched by what we told her," Okollet said. "She said she is going to push and make things work out. . . . Right now there are so many issues coming up with climate change. It is not only myself, or the country of Uganda, talking about the issue of climate change."

But representatives of many developing nations remained unconvinced, concerned that the Americans are quietly negotiating a deal that will not address all the issues of equity that have surfaced in the global warming debate. Several decried a negotiating text authored by the Danes, which leaked out Tuesday, that would demand more from major developing nations.

A more recent version of the Danish proposal, seen by The Washington Post, includes a provision calling on these countries to adopt domestic climate policies that "would expect to yield an appropriate contribution consistent with global emissions peaking as soon as possible, but no later than [2020]." The year 2020 is bracketed to indicate that the date remains under negotiation.

Key representatives such as Luiz Alberto Figueiredo Machado, Brazil's chief climate negotiator, said industrialized countries must commit to significant emission cuts, to providing aid to help developing nations adapt and curb climate change, and to transferring clean technology if they expected countries like his to bind themselves to climate targets as part of an international treaty.

"Major developing countries have shown clearly that they are willing to act in the context of a truly global effort, where everyone needs to do their fair share in the context of their responsibilities," said Figueiredo, whose nation has pledged to cut 36 to 39 percent in projected emissions growth by 2020.

Jake Schmidt, who directs international climate policy for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an interview that it is not surprising that Obama officials are "using all their tools" to ensure that key developing countries will make meaningful commitments in a new climate pact.

"This is high-stakes negotiation of the utmost urgency," he said. "You have to try everything to move this issue forward."

Stern, for his part, recognized that he might not receive the kind of accolades bestowed upon him at the start of talks this year, when delegates gave him a standing ovation during his first speech as Obama's climate representative. Engaging in the sort of negotiations that might produce a political breakthrough, he indicated, is not always popular.

"Mostly, we're not worried about standing ovations," Stern said. "We'd like to get a deal done."

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