World's next big climate pact begins to take shape

This week, negotiators from 182 countries meet in Bonn, Germany to lay the groundwork for a post-Kyoto climate regime.

By , Staff writer

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    Young Greenpeace activists protest for climate protection in Bonn, Germany, on Monday.
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A two-year march toward a new treaty to combat global warming is pausing briefly in Bonn to give negotiators from 182 countries their first crack at tackling a rough draft of an agreement.

Despite differences over some difficult issues, there is cautious optimism that negotiators could make progress especially now that the US is playing what many see as a more constructive role than it did under the Bush administration.

Over the next two weeks, country representatives will debate and overhaul as much of a 53-page “negotiating text” as they can to get a draft pact ready for government ministers to consider in December at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change's (UNFCCC) annual “conference of the parties” in Copenhagen.

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The ultimate goal is to produce a new agreement that will cover developing as well as developed countries and will pick up where 1997 Kyoto Protocol leaves off. The protocol's first – and so far, only – enforcement period ends in 2012. The protocol, which formally took force last year, calls on industrial countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by a combined average of 5.5 percent below 1990 levels.

The timetable and topics the new treaty must cover were set out at global climate talks in Bali in 2007. The Bali Roadmap envisioned a draft treaty that would be ready for consideration in Copenhagen, but now, UN officials speak in terms of an “agreed outcome” or talks leading to “a result” in the Danish capital.

Still, negotiations that began today in Bonn “represents a significant new step in the talks,” said Yvo de Boer, the UNFCCC's executive secretary, at a briefing Monday. “Governments have on the table for the first time real negotiating text, which can serves as the basis for drafting an agreed outcome in Copenhagen.”

How would he define success at December's meeting? First, an agreement must be clear about how much industrial countries aim to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020, Mr. de Boer said.

Then, it must be clear on what major developing countries – China, India, Mexico, Brazil, and South Africa – will do to limit the growth of their emissions. It must be clear about providing stable and predictable sources of money for adaptation measures in the developing world and for aid in buying the green technologies that will help those countries meet their emissions goals. And it must be clear on how the financial institutions that provide that money will be governed.

Developing countries argue that they have no representatives on the governing boards of any of the climate-related funding agencies currently set up to serve them.

US back in the game

Not surprisingly, the top item on Mr. de Boer's list – emissions reductions from developed countries – remains one of the most contentious.

In Bali, industrial countries minus the US “agreed in principle to reduce emission by 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020,” notes Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington. As with Kyoto targets, that's an average across all industrial countries.

Now the US is back in the game, but the Obama administration speaks of reducing emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. The energy legislation that cleared the US House Energy and Commerce Committee last month would reduce emissions anywhere from1 percent below 1990 levels to 23 percent below, depending on how aggressively some of its provisions are used, according to calculations by the World Resources Institute in Washington.

By contrast, Europe aims to reduce emissions to 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and would sweeten the pot by dropping emissions to 30 percent of 1990 levels if other industrial nations took on aggressive 2020 targets.

Japan is currently weighing its 2020 targets, with proposals ranging from 4 percent above 1990 levels to 25 percent below 1990, Mr. Meyer says. And Australia is reportedly shooting for 25 percent if several conditions are met.

So far, the goal has been to put emissions on a path that would limit the average rise in global temperatures to about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit by century's end. Based on the 2007 reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that amount of warming implies stabilizing greenhouse-gas concentrations at 450 parts per million (ppm). But some atmospheric researchers have since argued that to avoid dangerous human effect on climate, emissions must be stabilized at or below 350 ppm. Currently, the concentration of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse-gas posing the biggest concern, stands at 387 ppm.

Will emission cuts be enough?

The different targets and the various options for reaching them will make for an interesting conversation, Mr. Meyer says wryly. And a crucial one: Industrial countries currently covered by the Kyoto Protocol are unlikely to clamp down further on emissions unless they are satisfied with the changes the US and developing countries are willing to undertake.

With six weeks' worth of negotiating time left, it's likely that some of the financial issues could get ironed out first, analysts say, with the tougher issues of emissions and developing-country involvement coming later.

The UNFCCC's de Boer says improvements in the negotiating climate give him confidence of a Copenhagen agreement. Among other things, the US is moving ahead with domestic legislation, which embraces many of the elements the Kyoto Protocol contains.

But he also strikes a cautionary note. At the last full set of talks in Poznan, Poland, late last fall, he suggested that the Copenhagen talks would fail if an agreement didn't include deep additional cuts in emissions. The last IPCC report set out various temperature scenarios with differing concentrations of greenhouse-gases in the atmosphere and what it would take to stabilize them at each level. The greenhouse-gas levels with the highest likelihood of dodging dangerous human effects on climate involved deep cuts by industrial countries by 2020 and 2050, and a substantial change from “business as usual” in the developing world.

Do the proposals currently on the table include cuts deep enough to make Copenhagen a success? “No, they don't amount to enough,” de Boer replied. The key challenge for negotiators, he says, is “raising the level of ambition.”

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