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Bangkok talks to set timetable on global-warming pact

By December 2009, binding greenhouse-gas emissions policies will be set for developing countries.

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Meanwhile, buried in the footnotes of a broad negotiating road map that came out of the global climate talks in Bali last December, lie references to an emissions objective around which many countries hope to frame talks. If adopted, industrial countries would be required to reduce emissions from 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. That represents a benchmark along the path to stabilizing global emissions so that by century's end, global average temperature increases will be held to around 3.6 degrees F. Carbon dioxide, the key player in human-triggered warming, remains in the atmosphere for up to 200 years. Stabilization of atmospheric concentrations implies that emissions eventually must fall to virtually zero.

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To help get there, developed countries are trying to find ways to bring the developing countries into an emissions-reduction scheme without undercutting their legitimate aspirations to reduce poverty and boost their standards of living. These include potential approaches such as giving developing countries credit for conserving tropical forests, allowing developing countries to set an initial emissions target for a specific industry or economic sector, or having them use carbon-intensity as an initial benchmark, rather than out-and-out emissions cuts.

A range of sticky issues will arise once a timetable is set. For instance, developing countries say they want to do more, but need real, measurable, verifiable financial and technical help from developed countries to meet the emissions commitments the developed world expects. China has proposed that developed countries earmark half a percent of their gross domestic product to help developing countries grow in a less-carbon-intense way, according to Elliot Diringer, director of international strategies for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change in Arlington, Va.

"That's a pretty big number, and you're not likely to see it happen," he says. But, he adds, it indicates developing countries are serious about assistance.

The issue comes up at the "micro" level, as well. Mr. De Boer cites a notion people have been mulling called "food miles." The value of carbon-dioxide emitted while transporting farm goods around the globe would be tacked on to the price people pay for them. The hope is to encourage people to buy grains, fruit, vegetables, and animal feed with the lowest transportation emissions: local or regional sources. Developing countries are wary of the idea, since it would make their agricultural products less competitive.

Observers say they sense in delegates meeting in Bangkok a clear willingness to tackle these issues. But in the end, the world may find itself settling for a warmer world than current emissions-reductions goals imply.

"There's a huge gap between what the scientists say is necessary" to hit the 2-degree mark "and what the political process can deliver," Mr. Diringer says. "The challenge is to narrow that gap," even if it isn't slammed shut.