Optimism fading for Poland climate talks

Hopes of laying a solid foundation for a post-Kyoto climate pact in 2009 are diminishing, as representatives from 189 nations gathered in Poznań, Poland, squabble over financing methods.

AFP photo/Remigiusz Sikora
Greenpeace activists display a banner atop the rail station in Poznan, Poland, which is across the street from where UN climate talks are being held.

Hopes of laying a solid foundation for a post-Kyoto climate pact in 2009 are diminishing, as representatives from 189 nations gathered in Poznań, Poland, squabble over financing methods.

Delegates met for the two-week COP14 talks held in the western Polish industrial city hope to set the stage for a successor to the 1997 Kyoto Protocols, which expire in 2012. The details of the new climate pact are set to be agreed upon in December 2009 in Copenhagen, Denmark.

But the current talks, which close Friday, are proceeding more slowly than expected, casting into doubt hopes of a comprehensive climate treaty next year: "We’re working under a very tight timeline," said UN climate chief Yvo de Boer, according to Bloomberg's Alex Morales. "I don’t think where we are now it is going to be feasible to develop a fully elaborated, long-term response to climate change in Copenhagen."

Even if the resulting deal from Poznań lacks specifics, says Mr. de Boer, it could still give participants something to work with. “My sense is that we should be careful not to reach too far and achieve nothing,” de Boer told Bloomberg. “What we need to reach in Copenhagen is clarity on the key political issues so that everything after Copenhagen is settling the details and not negotiating fundamentals."

The haves and the want-to-haves

At the heart of much of the disagreement is that perennial struggle between rich and poor. Developing countries want industrialized countries – whose populations are responsible the lion's share of greenhouse emissions – to lead the way by making the steepest reductions in emissions. They also want money and technology to help them make their own emissions cuts and adapt to the impacts of climate change.

According to the Guardian, in Britain, European Union officials have proposed making an 80 percent to 95 percent reduction in greenhouse emissions by 2050 in exchange for developing countries' reducing their emissions by 15 percent to 30 percent over the next decade. They have not yet heard a reaction, but Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said that the developed world is unlikely to be impressed by the offer, which does not mandate any short-term cuts for rich countries.

"Unless the developed world comes up with strong, clear targets for 2020 themselves," Dr. Pachauri told the Guardian, "I think it is unlikely the developing world will commit itself to reductions."

According to Reuters, the United Nations will ask developed countries to contribute $1 billion for urgent projects in the poorest countries to help them adapt to floods, droughts, crop failures, and other impacts of global warming. So far, rich countries have committed only $172 million, with Germany, Denmark, Britain, and the Netherlands kicking in the most. The United States has yet to contribute any money.

Another Reuters story notes that the Chinese government, which is proposing that industrialized countries give 1 percent of their national wealth annually to help poor countries with adaptation and clean-energy development, is accusing rich countries of planning "a great escape" out of committing to specific emissions targets by dragging their feet in climate talks.
A divided Europe

The rift between rich and poor states is even playing out within the EU, which is holding its own climate talks this week in Brussels. As the Guardian notes, poorer countries in the east are asking for subsidies to help them develop clean technologies, which would be paid for by auctioning off permits that allow firms to produce a certain amount of greenhouse emissions. But western European countries, led by Germany, fear that requiring polluters to pay will endanger jobs.

The EU has long been in the forefront of drafting ambitious climate legislation, but some say that the 27-member union could cede this trail-blazing status if it fails to reach an agreement, with disastrous results for the planet. Agence France-Presse quotes two such observers:

No silver bullets

Adding to the deepening pessimism in Poznań is a new survey showing a waning belief that alternative energy can avert catastrophic climate change. As reported in the Guardian, the survey, which was given to 1,000 senior government officials, heads of advocacy groups, and business executives in 115 countries, found drops in support for wind, solar, hydrogen, and biofuels as compared to last year.

Delegates in Poznań have also dropped plans to support technology in the developing world that captures carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and stores them underground. Such "carbon capture and sequestration" technology has not yet been demonstrated on a large scale, but is crucial if poor countries are to continue burning coal without wrecking the climate. As the Wall Street Journal's eco-blogger, Keith Johnson, points out:

US in transition

Also hampering progress on the talks is the US's current political limbo. America is officially being represented by the soon-to-be-departed Bush administration, which has consistently rejected mandatory emissions caps. President-elect Barack Obama is not attending, despite pleas from environmentalists that he do so, although senators John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts and Amy Klobuchar (D) of Minnesota – both early Obama supporters – are part of the US delegation.

The presidential transition period has slowed the talks, some observers say. The International Herald Tribune quotes one environmentalist who says that delegates are holding out:

A kick in the pants

United Nations Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon has shown frustration with the delegates, telling the BBC that the world is going through "unprecedented multiple crises starting from global financial crisis, food crisis, and also climate-change crisis":

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