Climate talks over: What's next?

This month's  global climate talks in Poznan, Poland, are history. Negotiators achieved their main objective: Give marching orders to a pair of working groups to develop formal negotiating texts, starting next March in Bonn.

Oh, yes – and have the texts ready for debate and tweaking at the next global climate conference, scheduled for Copenhagen at the end of next year. Feel free to add extra meetings to the schedule if needed.

This was the two-year timeline set last December in Bali. It's a tall order.

One comment during a final press briefing in Poznan hints at the challenge. Yvo de Boer, executive secretary for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was asked whether, since the two-year allotment for talks under the Bali Road Map is half over, half the work needed to reach the finish line has been achieved.

"No, it hasn't," Mr. de Boer acknowledged. "The last year was a year of exchanging ideas, ... and now we're moving into a full negotiating mode and it's going to be a very heavy agenda. As in any marathon, you need to do the really fast running at the end."

Fast running and some high-hurdling as well.  Money for adaptation and to help developing countries pay for green technologies remains a big hurdle. A number of developing countries, including China and India, proposed what in effect would be a tax on two methods for meeting emissions goals under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. The levy, which already exists on a third mechanism, would raise an estimated $20 billion between now and 2012 to help developing countries adapt to local effects of global warming.

Former East bloc resistance

Some of the stiffest opposition to the tax came from former East bloc countries – so-called economies in transition. They are the biggest beneficiaries of "joint implementation" projects, one of the two Kyoto mechanisms in question. This program allows one Kyoto country – France, for instance – to get credit against its emission-reduction targets by financing climate-friendly projects in another Kyoto country, such as the Czech Republic.

The beef: A levy on such projects would make them too expensive compared with other Kyoto "flexible mechanisms" for meeting targets – emissions trading and green projects in developing countries.

But de Boer noted another, large-scale problem: "Let's be honest," he said. "Doing a deal in Copenhagen is to an important extent about engaging developing countries. And an important part of engaging developing countries is mobilizing financial resources. In principle, on the part of many industrialized countries, the notion of extending the share of proceeds is not abhorrent. But politically this was just not the time to do it."

What makes it so politically inopportune now to press the issue?

First of all, the global financial crisis running full tilt. Second, it's conceivable that the European Union, which opposed the new levy, wanted to avoid ruffling any more feathers among key former Soviet bloc countries, now EU members, as the EU tries to wrap up an agreement among its members on reducing emissions by 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Some of these countries, heavily reliant on coal for meeting their energy needs, were chafing at the program the EU was trying to adopt.

Other countries may also dig in their heels

Now that the negotiating rubber is finally hitting the road,  expect more countries to begin digging in their heels as they line up behind – or oppose – various ideas on how things should be done.

"We're moving into a different phase of the negotiations," de Boer observed. "Countries take much harder positions and express their interests much more strongly. They're almost creating defenses in important areas where they think they might be under attack. So it's logical that you see a certain amount of hardening as this process progresses."

Deforestation a key issue

Take deforestation, for instance.  Since the global talks in Montreal in 2005, a coalition of developing countries with tropical rain forests have proposed that they receive some form of compensation – carbon-trading credits, for instance – in exchange for halting further deforestation.

Since tropical deforestation accounts for roughly 20 percent of human-triggered CO2 emission, it would seem like a win-win situation.

But several environmental and indigenous groups at the meeting criticized the idea in the form it was described in the marching orders for this coming year's negotiations.

The language failed to recognize indigenous people's rights to continue to pursue traditional practices.

It also failed to include the maintenance of biodiversity as a goal worth preserving in any reforestation effort. Reforesting with single-species tree plantations would mean forests that are far less resilient to environmental stresses than a healthy, ecologically diverse tropical forest would be.

US role in the road ahead

What might the remaining road to Copenhagen look like, and how does the United States fit into the picture? Even de Boer has expressed doubts about reaching a full and final agreement at Copenhagen, notes Eileen Claussen, director of the independent, nonpartisan Pew Center on Global Climate Change based in Arlington, Va.

The outcome of the international process could well  hinge on what sort of climate legislation clears Congress.

"I think we're going to do some of the legislative stuff first, then see what others are willing to put on the table and whether you have a viable deal," Ms. Claussen says in a phone interview.

As for timing: "I think we will wait until we have a very good idea of what Congress is going to buy in terms of targets before we go and negotiate. The odds of that happening in 2009 are slim, and the odds of it happening in enough time so that we could actually negotiate are nil."

Framework for a new treaty

By Copenhagen, negotiators could reach an agreement on a framework for a new treaty, Claussen adds. This might include decisions on the types of commitments developed countries would have, or agree to a menu of choices developing countries could select from as they take more concerted action to curb their greenhouse-gas emissions. Then they could work to fill in the details by 2010's global talks.

Yet in a sense, the document that came out of Kyoto in 1997 was a framework. It took nearly a decade to fill in the details – some of which became bargaining chips as the last few countries needed to ratify the agreement so it could take effect held out for the best possible deal.

This time around, with developing countries full partners at the table (at least in principle), that equation becomes far more complicated.

The realities of international summits

Over at DeSmogBlog, Richard Littlemore gives some bytes to a 25-year-old Canadian woman who attended the talks as part of a youth delegation from her country. Think of it as part of a young adult's continuing (geo)political education.

"I came believing that these world leaders were going to come together, recognizing the seriousness of the [climate change] problem, make an agreement and then go home and do something about it.... This is not where real action on climate change is going to happen. This has really shown me the importance of acting at the national, regional and local levels. I thought that world leaders would decide something here, but all these countries know exactly what they’re going to do before they come here. No one is being pulled into doing something they weren’t expecting to do."

In fact, action is likely at the international level as well. How much and how fast, given the scope of the climate challenge, remains to be seen.

For a video clip of Yvo de Boer's final press briefing from Poznan, Poland, click here.

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