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Building trust tops global climate agenda

Talks start Monday in Poland for a post-Kyoto climate treaty.

By Peter N. SpottsStaff Writer / December 1, 2008

Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen (l.) talked to Rajendra Pachauri, head of the UN Climate Panel, during the opening session of the UN climate change conference in Poznan, Poland, on Monday.

Pawel Kopczynski/Reuters

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A year-long push to devise a new global climate-change treaty – one that picks up where the Kyoto Protocol leaves off – gets under way Monday in Poland, with delegates from more than 190 nations set to resume grappling with the thorny issues of how much more to cut greenhouse-gas emissions and who will pay.

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As in past climate negotiations, industrialized and developing countries bring different expectations to the talks – and the need to build trust between the two will be vital as a new treaty takes shape. The reason? Unlike the 1997 Kyoto agreement, this treaty will cover both developing and industrialized countries, but poorer countries worry that the developed world will not provide enough aid to help pay for emission-reduction or adaptation efforts. Part of the talks, which run Dec. 1-12, will focus on strengthening aid approaches.

The discussions, sponsored by the United Nations, aim ultimately to produce an accord that cuts global emissions enough by the end of the century to prevent a “dangerous” human influence on climate from occurring.

A “dangerous” scenario, according to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), has generally come to mean holding global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels by 2100. If global average temperatures rise much above that, many researchers say, the world risks significant increases in sea levels, the number of severe storms, and the duration of droughts. Coral reefs and marine creatures crucial to the ocean food chain, moreover, face a threat from acidic water as the oceans take up some of the carbon dioxide that industrial activities and deforestation produce.

In this early round in Poznan, Poland, though, a key achievement would be to approve the working groups that are to draft the treaty text and the schedule for completing it.

Completing a draft treaty in time for the 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen “is not a done deal,” says Alden Meyer, director for strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington. The meeting in Poznan represents “an opportunity, but it’s no guarantee.”

The talks take place under some imposing challenges.

Greenhouse-gas emissions currently outstrip the highest emission scenario in last year’s climate reports from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In 2007, China replaced the United States as the world’s top greenhouse-gas emitter. India is on a course toward third place. Even Europe reportedly is staring at the prospect of building about 50 coal-fired power plants, heavy carbon emitters, between now and 2013. Proponents argue that they’re cheap and provide energy security for a part of the world that relies heavily on Russia for natural gas and oil.

In Poznan, developed countries “need to confirm that emissions-reduction targets need to be in line with science to [keep temperature increases] below 2 degrees Celsius,” says Stephan Singer, who heads the European climate and energy unit at the World Wildlife Fund. “Targets must be legally binding and not voluntary.”

To stand a chance of meeting that goal, industrial nations would need to reduce emissions 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and by 80 to 95 percent by 2050, according to the IPCC. Developing countries would have to “deviate substantially” from business as usual. The authors of that IPCC estimate now say that rising emissions and glacial politics “make it almost unfeasible to reach relatively low global emission levels in 2020.”

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