Building trust tops global climate agenda

Talks start Monday in Poland for a post-Kyoto climate treaty.

Pawel Kopczynski/Reuters
Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen (l.) talked to Rajendra Pachauri, head of the UN Climate Panel, during the opening session of the UN climate change conference in Poznan, Poland, on Monday.

A year-long push to devise a new global climate-change treaty – one that picks up where the Kyoto Protocol leaves off – gets under way Monday in Poland, with delegates from more than 190 nations set to resume grappling with the thorny issues of how much more to cut greenhouse-gas emissions and who will pay.

As in past climate negotiations, industrialized and developing countries bring different expectations to the talks – and the need to build trust between the two will be vital as a new treaty takes shape. The reason? Unlike the 1997 Kyoto agreement, this treaty will cover both developing and industrialized countries, but poorer countries worry that the developed world will not provide enough aid to help pay for emission-reduction or adaptation efforts. Part of the talks, which run Dec. 1-12, will focus on strengthening aid approaches.

The discussions, sponsored by the United Nations, aim ultimately to produce an accord that cuts global emissions enough by the end of the century to prevent a “dangerous” human influence on climate from occurring.

A “dangerous” scenario, according to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), has generally come to mean holding global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels by 2100. If global average temperatures rise much above that, many researchers say, the world risks significant increases in sea levels, the number of severe storms, and the duration of droughts. Coral reefs and marine creatures crucial to the ocean food chain, moreover, face a threat from acidic water as the oceans take up some of the carbon dioxide that industrial activities and deforestation produce.

In this early round in Poznan, Poland, though, a key achievement would be to approve the working groups that are to draft the treaty text and the schedule for completing it.

Completing a draft treaty in time for the 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen “is not a done deal,” says Alden Meyer, director for strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington. The meeting in Poznan represents “an opportunity, but it’s no guarantee.”

The talks take place under some imposing challenges.

Greenhouse-gas emissions currently outstrip the highest emission scenario in last year’s climate reports from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In 2007, China replaced the United States as the world’s top greenhouse-gas emitter. India is on a course toward third place. Even Europe reportedly is staring at the prospect of building about 50 coal-fired power plants, heavy carbon emitters, between now and 2013. Proponents argue that they’re cheap and provide energy security for a part of the world that relies heavily on Russia for natural gas and oil.

In Poznan, developed countries “need to confirm that emissions-reduction targets need to be in line with science to [keep temperature increases] below 2 degrees Celsius,” says Stephan Singer, who heads the European climate and energy unit at the World Wildlife Fund. “Targets must be legally binding and not voluntary.”

To stand a chance of meeting that goal, industrial nations would need to reduce emissions 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and by 80 to 95 percent by 2050, according to the IPCC. Developing countries would have to “deviate substantially” from business as usual. The authors of that IPCC estimate now say that rising emissions and glacial politics “make it almost unfeasible to reach relatively low global emission levels in 2020.”

Meanwhile, the financial crisis in the US – the worst since the Great Depression – has gone global, raising anew the issue of costs of emissions reductions. An IPCC analysis, released Friday, estimates that the cost of cutting global emissions by 25 percent by 2030 is growing. Last year’s estimate put the figure at about $200 billion a year. Friday’s update increased the estimated cost by 170 percent.

During a press conference in Warsaw last week, Yvo de Boer, the UNFCCC’s executive secretary, acknowledged that the financial crisis “will throw a shadow over the climate-change negotiations.”

Several climate-policy specialists in the US and Europe note that the election of Barack Obama, along with leadership changes on key congressional committees, may brighten prospects for a new climate pact. Negotiations are expected to begin in earnest in Bonn in March, after the front-door keys to the White House have changed hands. Mr. Obama has argued that the financial crisis marks an opportunity to restructure the economy to emphasize energy efficiency and green technologies.

Yet many remain cautious. “We’ve heard good rhetoric in the past,” during the Clinton-Gore administration, says Jennifer Morgan, climate-change program director for E3G, an environmental think tank and advocacy group in London. “But they didn’t do much.”

A diplomat who keeps close tabs on developing-country delegations sees Obama’s recent pledge to reduce US greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and by an additional 80 percent by 2050 as an example of politics as usual. “That’s Obama kicking the can down the road and leaving the leadership for the next president,” he says. The Kyoto Protocol calls for emissions among industrial countries to fall an average of 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012, he notes.

Still, some US environmental-group leaders note that Obama’s 2020 number would represent a big change, especially given the trend in US emissions over the past eight years. One way to make up for the perceived lack of vigor in that target would be for the US to pursue ways to help the developing world pay for its mitigation and adaptation efforts, they say.

Financing, in fact, is a critical issue at the Poznan talks, say climate policy specialists.

Developing countries have offered the most ideas for how to set up adaptation and technology-transfer money, they say. Among industrial countries, Norway and the European Union have suggested some ideas. Norway is committing some $2.8 billion to fight deforestation. But much remains to be done.

One proposal that has gained traction among tropical and industrial countries involves earning carbon credits as a financial incentive in exchange for meeting commitments to crack down on tropical deforestation. The approach holds potential for reducing a proportion of greenhouse-gas emissions, advocates say. It also could serve as a model to show other developing countries that if they can’t commit to economywide emissions reductions, it is possible to commit to reductions in a specific economic sector, such as cementmaking or forestry.

But the idea remains controversial among some environmental advocates and groups that focus on the rights of indigenous people who live in and around tropical forests.

“It would trigger a land grab that would endanger forest-dependent communities,” says Joseph Zacune, climate-change coordinator for Friends of the Earth International. “Including forests in a carbon market would create another huge offsetting scheme that will allow the rich world to buy their way out of carbon emissions reduction.”

• Mark Rice-Oxley in London contributed to this report.

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