U.N. group drafts plan to reduce emissions
Document points to obstacles ahead, but could lead to final deal

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 12, 2009

COPENHAGEN -- The U.N.-sponsored climate conference -- characterized so far by unruly posturing and mutual recriminations -- gained renewed focus Friday with the release of a document outlining ambitious greenhouse-gas reductions over the next 40 years, with industrialized nations shouldering most of the burden in the near term.

The text, which could provide the basis for a final political deal to regulate greenhouse gases, highlighted the remaining obstacles as much as it illuminated a path forward. But it was seen as an important advance in a negotiation that is running out of time, with more than 100 world leaders arriving in Copenhagen next week.

Forged by a U.N. ad-hoc working group, the text is silent on how much money rich countries would give poor ones to cope with global warming over the short and long term. And it provides a range of options for the key questions, including how developed and major emerging economies would cut their carbon output, and what would be the upper limit of global temperature rise that policymakers would be willing to tolerate.

"It gives a lot of flexibility to the process," said John Coequyt, senior Washington representative for the Sierra Club.

Michael Zammit Cutajar, who drafted the six-page document, boiled down a 180-page negotiation text to focus on what the U.N.'s top climate official, Yvo de Boer, described as "the big picture."

It shows the outlines for a possible deal, in which industrial nations would collectively cut their emissions by 2020 by 25 to 45 percent compared with 1990 levels, while major developing countries would reduce theirs during the same period by 15 to 30 percent. Together, the countries would cut emissions between 50 and 95 percent by 2050.

The European Union gave the talks a boost as well on Friday by pledging to provide $3.6 billion a year over the next three years to help poorer countries adapt to the impact of climate change -- from coping with flood and drought to avoiding deforestation.

Still, Friday featured the same sort of verbal fireworks that have dominated the talks for the past week.

U.S. special climate envoy Todd Stern rejected language requiring binding cuts of greenhouse-gas emissions for industrialized countries compared with voluntary ones by major emerging economies if they were not funded by the developed world. The move signaled that the Obama administration is taking a harder line with China than Bush administration officials did just two years ago.

"The United States is not going to do a deal without the major developing countries stepping up and taking action," said Stern, who also complained that the text did not do enough to make sure the cuts could be verified by outside observers.

Stern made his comments an hour after Chinese vice foreign minister He Yafei said America's top climate negotiator was either lacking "common sense" or being "extremely irresponsible" for saying earlier in the week that the United States would not help China financially to cope with global warming.

With the future economic trajectory of the world's major powers at stake, fault lines have erupted both within the developing world and between the industrial world and emerging economies.

The current battle is as much about saving individual economies as saving the planet, with China and the United States feuding over their respective obligations while poorer nations insist that the world's two dozen most influential countries are ignoring the scientific imperative to take bolder action.

Ricardo Ulate, a Costa Rican delegate, said it's not surprising that the major powers are fighting over who should bear the costs for curbing greenhouse gases, even as vulnerable countries have become more aggressive in seeking to hold the big emitters accountable for their actions.

"This is clearly a game where a new economic hegemony is being developed," said Ulate, who also serves as the regional Mexico and Central America climate change adviser for Conservation International.

Some of the countries most vulnerable to the impact of climate change indicated they would continue to push for a legally binding treaty in Copenhagen, although most of the major participants say the talks will produce a political deal at best. The Alliance of Small Island States, which has 43 members, produced a 24-page draft treaty proposal early Friday morning.

Artur Runge-Metzger, who heads international climate negotiations on behalf of the European Commission, said the push by small island nations has "put political pressure on the entire political process," in part because they are now unified and demanding action from emerging economies such as China and India.

The talks took on new urgency as delegates focused on the fact that they must resolve most of the outstanding issues before the heads of government arrive to strike a deal. High-level officials such as Indian environment minister Jairam Ramesh and the Chinese vice minister stepped off planes and raced through the Bella Center's halls to closed-door meetings and news conferences so they could stake out claims that will be arbitrated over the next week.

The sheer sprawl of the gathering -- where 13,000 people move in and out of the convention center each day, guitar-playing activists put on nightly shows mocking the countries they think are selling out, and draft proposals are passed hand-to-hand on paper rather than via e-mail -- poses a challenge.

The intensity is only building: nearly all of the key ministers are now here, and as early as Wednesday 60 heads of government will be in Copenhagen.

"We're getting into the big leagues," said Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, vice president for global policy at Conservation International. "The heavyweights are coming."

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