As climate-change talks continue, lack of consensus spurs smaller-scale actions

By Juliet Eilperin and William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 10, 2010; 12:00 AM

CANCUN, MEXICO - In response to growing frustration that the U.N. climate negotiations are not producing real-world results, individual nations, states and business are cobbling together patchwork solutions to preserve forests, produce clean energy and scrub pollution from the air.

Under this new approach, businesses in California will offset their greenhouse gas emissions by funding tropical forest preservation in Mexico and Brazil; Japan will help pay for nuclear power plants in developing nations; and South Korea will invest in promoting renewable energy at home.

But the central question remains: Will a bottom-up network of ad hoc arrangements and bilateral deals be enough to avert dangerous climate change?

For years, international policymakers operated on the assumption that they would develop a successor to the landmark 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the only legally binding international accord to reduce greenhouse gases. They expected to agree on a common path for cutting the world's carbon output, dole out key nations' specific obligations and create a common market for trading greenhouse emissions. That vision has evaporated, replaced by a much looser web of climate-related efforts across the globe.

"The web of them together is an international architecture," said Robert Stavins, who directs Harvard University's environmental economics program. "You'll see a bottom-up linkage of climate policies that are very different between countries, regions, and even on the sub-national level."

The advantage of the U.N.-led talks taking place here - increasingly frenzied as they go into the final day Friday - is that they offer every country big and small the ability to argue its case. But the failure of political leadership and lack of a consensus among rich, poor and rapidly developing nations is forcing a departure from the way the world has approached climate-change policy for the past two decades.

Brazil's climate-change ambassador, Sergio Serra, described the U.N. climate negotiations as "on life support" and the goals for this conference so modest that "we are just trying to keep things honorably alive."

In an interview Thursday, Mexican President Felipe Calderon predicted the talks would produce meaningful results by week's end, but he expressed frustration with the cumbersome U.N. process. If negotiations fail, he added, Mexico would push for "a change in the rules."

"I am not allowing another 10 years to go by before we pass an agreement," he said.

Meanwhile, countries and regions are pressing ahead with their own mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions that will involve carbon trading systems - allowing companies to compensate for their emissions by buying credits that are used to invest in pollution-reducing projects in other parts of the world.

"That could open the door for ties between industrialized nations such as Australia, Japan and those in the European Union and developing countries," Serra said. That is good, he said, "though it remains unclear how this will work, since each trading system may involve a different set of rules."

Jake Schmidt, who directs international climate policy for the Natural Resources Defense Fund, an advocacy group, said, "Countries aren't just sitting and waiting for this international agreement to deliver."

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