At climate talks, key decisions unresolved

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 16, 2009; A06

COPENHAGEN -- As world leaders begin gathering here to hammer out a climate deal in two days, some key decisions still haven't been made.

It's unclear how to fund a deal that could involve the transfer of billions of dollars from industrialized countries to the developing world; delegates remain at loggerheads over which mechanisms should be employed to reduce emissions; and there is continuing debate about how to monitor compliance with a treaty.

The uncertainty over the talks' direction raises questions about the next step: what sort of binding treaty policymakers will be able to produce next year, the new deadline they have set.

A new version of the overall negotiating text came out early Wednesday with little changed from last week's draft.

The lack of visible progress has frustrated activists, who have staged attention-grabbing stunts to convey their dissatisfaction. Some, dressed as police officers, handed out cards titled "Climate Crime Scene: Can You Help?" with lines such as: "Climate change could push sub-Saharan Africans into poverty by 2020 if global leaders do not act now to reach a fair climate deal." Others unfurled bright yellow banners declaring "Do Not Nuke the Climate."

Former vice president Al Gore urged a crowd of hundreds inside the Bella Center on Tuesday to continue pressing for a meaningful agreement. "My plea to you is: Realize what is at stake and reach a result that gives momentum to the process," he said in a nearly hour-long speech.

The question of funding -- which stalled the talks earlier this week when a group of poor nations protested that they stood to lose even the protections they had won with the Kyoto Protocol 12 years ago -- remains intractable. Delegates from poorer countries and from major emerging economies such as China have charged that wealthy nations have not put enough money on the table to persuade developing nations to sign on to any deal that would force them to curb their greenhouse gas emissions; industrialized nations counter that they cannot embrace any agreement that does not bind major emerging economies to emissions-monitoring procedures that can be verified from outside the country.

Elliot Diringer, vice president for international strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, said this dynamic may mean that "Copenhagen may deliver both more and less than we anticipated."

"More, in terms of explicit pledges from all of the major powers that I couldn't have predicted just a few weeks ago," he said, referring to emissions cuts. "Less, in terms of building the framework to turn these pledges into legal commitments."

'Clogging the process'

The question of long-term financing is critical, because many developing countries see little incentive to sign off on an agreement that does not provide them with significant new money to deal with the effects of global warming.

"That issue is clogging the process right now," said Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute. "The U.S. is asking for a lot but hasn't been able to bring very much."

President Obama and his representatives held a series of talks with key nations over the past two days aimed at determining exactly how much money vulnerable nations would need to endorse a deal.

Obama called Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who represents the group of African nations, and Bangladesh's prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wazed, and Tuesday held a videoconference with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, who told reporters Tuesday that "the president believes that we can get an operational agreement that makes sense in Copenhagen," later wrote in an e-mail that the administration is still exploring what funding it could offer to address poor nations' concerns.

"We are working with our developed and developing country friends on financing needs for adaptation for both the short and long terms," Gibbs wrote.

Pushing for transparency

At the same time, the United States continued to press major developing countries such as China and India to agree to independent verification of the emissions reductions they have pledged.

Indian environment minister Jairam Ramesh has announced that his nation would be willing to report on its emissions reductions and plans as part of an existing "national communication" that countries submit to the United Nations, but he said he wants the United States to explain why it is demanding more transparency from countries like his.

"You need to be transparent about what 'transparency' means," Ramesh said. "Are you worried China and India will make up our figures?"

Sergio Serra, Brazil's climate change ambassador, said it is unreasonable for the United States and other industrialized countries to make such demands when every major emerging economy has already taken on a voluntary climate target for the next decade.

"We have done our homework, and we are stepping up our efforts," Serra said. "But we don't see comparable moves on the other side, on the financial package, for example. . . . I don't think the ball is in our court."

A range of disputes

Serra added that the ministers who began high-level talks Tuesday will have to work out an array of disputes if they expect the more than 110 leaders headed to Copenhagen at the end of the week to sign off on a deal.

"You don't expect leaders to really go down to commas and semicolons and drafting paragraphs," he said.

Even the most significant advance in the talks Tuesday -- completion of the technical text that would allow developing nations to receive financial compensation for preserving their tropical forests -- left central issues unresolved, such as where this funding would come from and how much avoided deforestation the world would aim for.

Becky Chacko, director of climate policy for Conservation International, said she was pleased that the technical negotiators had narrowed down the key questions on what is known as Reducing Emissions From Deforestation in Developing Countries.

"They really need to bring in the big guns to resolve those," Chacko said, adding that the critical question remains how to establish a mechanism that will allow money to flow to impoverished nations that now have more incentive to cut down forests. "This isn't anything more than a paper agreement if the financing isn't there to back it up."

Staff writer Scott Wilson and staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis in Washington contributed to this report.

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