Climate deal falls short of key goals

President Barack Obama said the United States, China and several other countries reached an "unprecedented breakthrough" to curb greenhouse gas emissions after a frenzied day of diplomacy at the U.N. climate talks. (Dec. 18)
Map locates Copenhagen, Denmark
By Juliet Eilperin and Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 19, 2009

COPENHAGEN -- President Obama helped broker a climate deal with a group of leading nations that provides for monitoring emission cuts by each country but sets no global target for cutting greenhouse gases, and no deadline for reaching a formal international climate treaty.

The deal falls far short of many countries' expectations for the summit and leaves a comprehensive battle plan for climate change potentially years away. Although the agreement included some major players -- China, India, Brazil and South Africa -- it was not universally agreed upon by the 193 nations attending the summit. In fact, some leaders left early Friday in apparent frustration.

For the Obama administration, the focus of the climate debate shifts to the domestic stage. Though Obama voiced hopes for greater results, the modest agreement may help the administration as it presses Congress to pass landmark climate-change legislation.

By not committing the United States to new standards and by insisting on monitoring cuts made by other nations, the administration can say passage of domestic legislation would not put the United States at a competitive disadvantage with other nations, particularly China.

In announcing the deal, even Obama -- who walked in on a meeting of developing nations to insist on an agreement late Friday -- conceded its limitations. "Today we made a meaningful and unprecedented breakthrough here in Copenhagen," he said. But, he added, "It is going to be very hard, and it's going to take some time" to get a legally binding treaty. That, he said, "was not achievable at this conference."

In the deal, spelled out in a three-page document, each country needs only to list its current domestic pledges for emissions reductions and to promise to allow monitoring of their progress. It also outlines steps to help poor countries go green and prepare for the impact of a warming Earth.

But it sparked a rebellion among more vulnerable nations. They said they could not accept an agreement that lacked deep emissions commitments from the industrialized world.

"The science tells us we must act now, and urgently," said Ian Fry, climate-change representative for Tuvalu, which may be submerged by rising seas in a matter of decades. "To use a Biblical allusion, it looks like we're being offered 30 pieces of silver to bargain away our future. Mr. President, our future is not for sale."

The room burst into applause.

European officials, for their part, made it clear that although America's climate-change goals had improved, compared to where they were under the Bush administration, they still were not in line with those of the European Union and Japan.

"This accord is better than no accord, [but] it wasn't a huge step," said European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso. "The level of ambition is honestly not what we were hoping for."

Barroso and Swedish Prime Minister Frederik Reinfeldt said the EU would stick to its target of reducing emissions 20 percent by 2020, compared to 1990 levels, rather than going for the 30 percent goal they had pledged in the context of an ambitious agreement.

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