8 questions about the last day of Copenhagen climate talks

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 18, 2009; 10:57 AM

Eight new questions about the last day of climate talks in Copenhagen.

1. What did President Obama say?

He said a lot of things forcefully, but not much that was new. Obama's speech to this U.N. conference on climate change largely covered points laid out previously by other U.S. representatives. He talked about America's willingness to reduce greenhouse gases "in the range of" 17 percent, as measured against 2005 levels, by 2020. He talked about the U.S. offer to "help build" a $100 billion international fund to help poor countries adapt to climate change. And he urged China -- without mentioning the country by name -- to accept international monitoring to see if it is complying with emissions-cutting pledges.

Instead of offering new details about U.S. plans, Obama used his speech to urge the fractious delegates to agree in the waning moments of this summit. "We can do that, and everyone who is in this room will be a part of an historic endeavor -- one that makes life better for our children and grandchildren," he said, according to his prepared remarks.

2. Did that change the prospects of a deal?

Who knows? So far Friday, the last day of the conference, several world leaders have been quoted saying that the summit is in danger of ending with total failure, or a very weak agreement. But these summits are always cliffhangers, with breakthroughs arriving at the last moment.

3. Why is China acting this way?

This is a negotiation, after all. And anyone who's ever dealt with a car salesman knows that power comes from the threat to walk away. At this conference, China may have intended to send that signal with confrontational remarks about U.S. positions, and by balking at international monitoring. Its message might be that this conference needs China -- a vast and growing source of emissions, whose exclusion from the Kyoto Protocol's emissions cuts made that agreement look weak -- more than China needs it.

This way, if China gives in on monitoring, it may get greater compensation than if it had conceded the point earlier in the summit.

4. Where will the United States get the money it plans to send to poor countries to help them adapt to climate change?

That hasn't been spelled out. Administration sources have said that the United States might provide 20 to 30 percent of the international fund it organizes, which would be $20 billion to $30 billion a year by 2020. Much of this money will come from private sources, officials said, but it would also include some of the revenue that would be generate from a "cap and trade" climate bill. In that kind of bill, passed by the House and now being considered by the Senate, the government would auction off some "allowances" that would allow polluters to emit a certain amount of greenhouse gases, and they would have to pay to offset their emissions if they couldn't cut them outright.

5. What kind of deal looks realistic at this point?

The best guess at this point is a draft that negotiators worked on through the night Thursday. It would include the offer of the $100 billion adaptation fund, include emissions-fighting pledges that the United States, China and European countries made before the conference, and some kind of provision for emissions monitoring. The deal would also include a pledge to make strict cuts in emissions by 2050.

It would not include an ironclad commitment by the international community to make stringent emissions cuts in the next decade -- which was the original goal of the Copenhagen conference. But that ambition was shelved long before the conference began.

6. Isn't that deal basically what countries already agreed upon before the conference?

Not entirely. On the issue of money transferred from rich countries to poor ones to adapt to climate change, the Copenhagen conference has provided solid numbers where before there had been only notions. So that's one accomplishment for the conference.

Otherwise, er, yes.

7. What else will Obama do in Copenhagen?

More important than Obama's speech may be his private talks with other world leaders assembled in Copenhagen. Already Friday, he has met with officials from several European powers, plus China, India, Mexico and leaders in the "developing countries" bloc in Copenhagen. The talks with China might be the most important: That country's opposition to international monitoring remains a major stumbling block between the world's two biggest emitters.

8. What happens next?

The next scheduled U.N. meeting on climate change will be a year from now in Mexico City. If there are no breakthroughs Friday in Copenhagen, the expectations that had focused on this conference will be transferred to that one.

In some ways, agreement might be easier in a year -- especially if the U.S. Senate has passed, and Obama has signed, legislation that would spell out a program for reducing this country's emissions. But scientists say that every year an agreement is delayed means more greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere. That could mean, if the world really does want to halt climate change before it increases the world temperature 3.6 degrees, even bigger cuts in emissions would have to be made.

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