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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."

On the state level, California recently announced that starting in 2012 it would allow companies forced to cut their carbon output to offset some of their emissions by supporting certified forest protection projects in the Brazilian state of Acre and the Mexican state of Chiapas. Linda Adams, California's secretary for environmental protection, said at a panel in Cancun that the decision will "pave the way for others to be part of our carbon market."

Even developing countries that are not bound by mandatory limits yet are looking at ways to cut their greenhouse gases. Mexico is examining how to convert its urban solid waste into energy, for example, while some of its farmers are producing shade-grown coffee for Starbucks using practices that sequester carbon.

Steve Cochran, vice president for climate and air at the Environmental Defense Fund advocacy group, said this new period of experimentation could lay the foundation for a more ambitious global effort in the future.

"People need to see, touch and feel that some of this stuff actually works," he said. "And when they do that, they'll be willing to take broader steps."

But even the emerging approaches, such as donations from rich countries to poor ones to conserve their forests, need to work out some kinks. On Wednesday, Guyana's President Bharrat Jagdeo publicly questioned why it's taking so long to get its first installment of funds under a $250 million forest conservation agreement with Norway.

"The international community has a very poor track record of delivering help," he said, blaming World Bank officials for a recent delay. Yvonne Tsikata, World Bank country director for the Caribbean, said in a statement that her institution was just serving as a "financial intermediary" and was awaiting the sign-off from a steering committee comprising officials from Guyana and Norway before transferring the funds.

In the meantime, representatives from nations most vulnerable to climate change said they still needed a global agreement - and soon. The current emissions pledges that industrialized and developing countries have made as part of the U.N. process fall well short of ensuring global temperatures don't exceed 3.6 degrees above pre-industrial levels, which many scientists agree could be a significant tipping point.

"Individual actions by themselves cannot substitute for international governance," said Grenada's permanent U.N. representative, Dessima Williams, who chairs a coalition of 43 small island nations threatened by rising sea levels. "We realize the multilateral process is complex and long-term. We have been in it, and we're in it for the long haul. Our problem is the islands are really suffering."

These annual negotiations, formally known as the Conference of Parties (COP), have taken place for the past 16 years and now even some senior U.N. diplomats and advisers have raised the question of whether it's worth imposing an expiration date.

"Which COP will be the final one for a decision?" asked one top U.N. official here, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the subject. "Are we just going to go on and on?"

eilperinj@washpost.com boothb@washpost.com

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