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At Copenhagen, many global warming issues likely to be unresolved

As the Copenhagen global warming talks head into their final days, observers say many climate change issues are likely to be left unresolved.

By Peter N. SpottsStaff writer / December 16, 2009

A poster reading 'COP 15 : Business As Usual' is seen during a demonstration outside the Bella Center, the venue of the UN climate change conference, in Copenhagen, Wednesday.

Thibault Camus/AP


Copenhagen, Denmark

Talks on a new global warming pact in Copenhagen reached a more politically rarified height today as ministers from more than 190 countries took the hand-off from their technical negotiating teams.

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Over a week of negotiations left a large number of unresolved issues that now land squarely in the laps of cabinet-rank government officials to resolve.

The process has been complicated by the early arrival of several heads of state, who are getting involved in the talks far earlier than anticipated.

The accelerated timetable prompted the meeting's president, Connie Hedegaard, Denmark's environment minister, to resign her presidency this morning and turn the reins over to Denmark's prime minister, Lars L√łkke Rasmussen.

The rationale: It takes a head of government to cajole other heads of government. Ms. Hedegaard has continued to keep the process moving at the ministerial level.

With heads of state now directly involved in the talks, some observers say they doubt much will come out of the meeting beyond a symbolic statement.

One diplomat veteran of global-warming talks and international trade talks said that once heads of state get involved the outcome tends to be "a one-and-a-half page statement with nice words," with key decisions put off until the next major gathering.

To be sure, others are less pessimistic.

In a press briefing Wednesday Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, said, "I still believe it's possible to reach real success. But I must say in that context that the next 24 hours are absolutely crucial."

Perils of Pauline?

Veterans of these talks note that during negotiations in Kyoto in 1997 over what would become the Kyoto Protocol, the final three days of talks resembled the silent movie serial Perils of Pauline, in which the heroine always appeared marked for death until a miraculous last minute escape.

At the end in Kyoto, leaders inked a deal, although the United State's never participated in that pact.

Though the Kyoto protocal only barely slowed the rate of increase in greenhouse-gas emissions, observers say the agreement was valuable in setting up mechanisms that could lead to further progress beyond the initial 2008-2012 commitment period.

Fast forward to 2009 and some analysts say the Copenhagen talks could lead to a similar outcome.

"The targets currently put on the table are not enough to meet what the science tells us is necessary. This stage of the process is not going to deliver the outcome we need," says Duncan Marsh, director of international climate policy for The Nature Conservancy in Arlington, Va.

But it will help establish on a global basis, rather than just for a handful of industrial countries, "the systems that allow governments to begin to grapple with the issue on a much more systematic, effective, and coordinated way,'' he said. "When we do that, we'll have opportunities to review the science and ratchet up targets accordingly."