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Climate talks over: What's next?

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But de Boer noted another, large-scale problem: "Let's be honest," he said. "Doing a deal in Copenhagen is to an important extent about engaging developing countries. And an important part of engaging developing countries is mobilizing financial resources. In principle, on the part of many industrialized countries, the notion of extending the share of proceeds is not abhorrent. But politically this was just not the time to do it."

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What makes it so politically inopportune now to press the issue?

First of all, the global financial crisis running full tilt. Second, it's conceivable that the European Union, which opposed the new levy, wanted to avoid ruffling any more feathers among key former Soviet bloc countries, now EU members, as the EU tries to wrap up an agreement among its members on reducing emissions by 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Some of these countries, heavily reliant on coal for meeting their energy needs, were chafing at the program the EU was trying to adopt.

Other countries may also dig in their heels

Now that the negotiating rubber is finally hitting the road,  expect more countries to begin digging in their heels as they line up behind – or oppose – various ideas on how things should be done.

"We're moving into a different phase of the negotiations," de Boer observed. "Countries take much harder positions and express their interests much more strongly. They're almost creating defenses in important areas where they think they might be under attack. So it's logical that you see a certain amount of hardening as this process progresses."

Deforestation a key issue

Take deforestation, for instance.  Since the global talks in Montreal in 2005, a coalition of developing countries with tropical rain forests have proposed that they receive some form of compensation – carbon-trading credits, for instance – in exchange for halting further deforestation.

Since tropical deforestation accounts for roughly 20 percent of human-triggered CO2 emission, it would seem like a win-win situation.

But several environmental and indigenous groups at the meeting criticized the idea in the form it was described in the marching orders for this coming year's negotiations.

The language failed to recognize indigenous people's rights to continue to pursue traditional practices.

It also failed to include the maintenance of biodiversity as a goal worth preserving in any reforestation effort. Reforesting with single-species tree plantations would mean forests that are far less resilient to environmental stresses than a healthy, ecologically diverse tropical forest would be.

US role in the road ahead

What might the remaining road to Copenhagen look like, and how does the United States fit into the picture? Even de Boer has expressed doubts about reaching a full and final agreement at Copenhagen, notes Eileen Claussen, director of the independent, nonpartisan Pew Center on Global Climate Change based in Arlington, Va.

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