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 , Staff writer

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    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.
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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.

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.

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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 Løkke 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."

Possible outcomes

At a briefing today, the Pew Center on Global Climate Change's Elliot Diringer speculated on what an outcome of the "somewhat chaotic and fractured" talks at Copenhagen could look like.

First and foremost, this will not be a legal document, but a political agreement, he said.

Emissions-control offers -- particularly from the US and developing countries -- likely will be included in the document.

Some offers, such as China's, are being built into the country's long-term economic planning process. Others, such as President Barack Obama's offer, are conditional.

In the US case, the condition is congressional approval of energy and climate legislation, which probably won't happen before next spring.

Other offers from major developing countries hinge on getting what they see as adequate financial support from rich nations.

Putting those offers into some form of treaty likely will be negotiated over the coming year, Mr. Marsh adds.

One matter that looks as though it could be resolved by week's end is so-called fast-start money -- some $10 billion a year from 2010 through 2012 that developed countries would give to developing nations as a down payment on longer-term financing to help poorer nations adopt cleaner technologies and find ways to mitigate the effects of higher temperatures.

Mr. Diringer says any political agreement at Copenhagen must set a deadline for resolving outstanding issues and crafting the legal language needed to eventually pull the results together into a formal treaty.

In addition, any agreement will preserve the two "tracks" of talks that have been underway: one covering a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol; the second crafting the political agreement that brings the US and developing countries into an international climate regime.

Finally, a final Copenhagen document is likely to include some numbers on a long-term temperature goal, variously debated here as either 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, or a 1.5-degree goal backed by many developing countries.

"There will have to be a finessing of those numbers; I don't think we'll see a single number," Diringer says.

As for commitments on long-term aid for developing countries, which some say needs to be more than $100 billion a year by 2020, it will be challenging for the US to come up with specific numbers, Diringer says. That is one topic whose details may get kicked into further negotiations over the next year.

Indeed, The Nature Conservancy's Marsh sees the short-term money as a confidence-building measure developed countries can offer up to ease developing country mistrust of their richer counterparts.

"These negotiations get pulled into a long history and debate between developing and developed countries. In many senses, developing countries feel like they've run through a series of broken promises, not just on climate change, but on a wide variety of other issues," he says.

The thorny issue of monitoring, reporting, and verification of any nation's pledged actions is likely to get pushed off to next year. This has been a prickly issue, especially between the US and China.

"The whole process is all about trust," Marsh says. Each country needs "a level of comfort that it can act because it knows its partners are acting in an appropriate way, depending on their own national circumstance."

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