Agreement on climate change looks unlikely ahead of Copenhagen

A European Union agreement last week was short on specifics. US commitments on reductions may not be forthcoming, making Chinese commitments also unlikely.

The world is moving toward December climate change talks that have been described in some quarters as "pivotal." But a European Union agreement, signed last week, sheds light on how tenuous the prospects are for a comprehensive deal any time soon.

UN-sponsored talks are scheduled in Copenhagen, and it was initially hoped they would extend the emissions-cutting targets of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. But Artur Runge-Metzger, head of the European delegation at a preliminary meeting in Barcelona for the Copenhagen negotiations, said Thursday that a deal was unlikely on schedule. "There is a lot of work still to be done," he told reporters.

Last week, European Union officials lauded their internal agreement – which determined that $150 billion would be needed over the next decade to combat climate change – as evidence of a united front heading toward Copenhagen.

These officials claim the agreement will give them leverage in negotiations with China and the United States, both of which have been reluctant to name specific targets for emission reduction. House Democrats – over a threatened Republican boycott – are currently pushing a bill through committee that would cap US emissions.

But the EU agreement is short on specifics, reflecting what critics say are fractures over which countries should shoulder the financial burden for helping poor nations shift to more sustainable energy sources.

These experts also claim that naming extremely ambitious goals, as preferred by European negotiators, is the wrong way to go about effecting climate change.

The agreement failed to specify which countries would contribute to the $150 billion fund, and at what level. This was done to appease central and eastern European countries like Poland and Lithuania, which objected to initial plans to tie funding commitments to carbon-emission levels. In the past two decades, these countries have not had the money to create clean energy technologies or take carbon-emitting power plants offline.

Meanwhile, countries like Germany experienced a steep drop in carbon emissions after reunification in 1990, when Soviet-era heavy industries were shut down in the east and the former West Germany helped soften the blow.

"West Germany footed the bill for East Germany," says Kurt Volker, a scholar at the Center for Transatlantic Relations and a former US ambassador to NATO. "No one has footed the bill for middle and eastern Europe. They don't have the government budgets right now to make drastic changes to their economies."

The same dilemma exists in the developing world. Energy-efficient technology is expensive. Developing nations are forced to rely on outdated technology, which, in turn, emits more greenhouse gases.

"Europe, in producing this [agreement], is ... not talking about ideas that bring in developing countries and the United States," says Mr. Volker. They are talking to their own public."

"This could lead to the unfortunate situation where Europe blames the US for failure to act," adds Scott Barrett, a professor of natural-resource economics at Columbia University in New York. "It's unhelpful for countries to point to one another and say this country is doing well and this one is not."


Yet it appears as if the finger-pointing has already begun. At the UN meeting in Barcelona Monday, Yvo de Boer, executive secretary for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, said Copenhagen will fail without firm commitments on emission reductions from the United States.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke to the US Congress on Tuesday and urged the US to make a firm commitment at Copenhagen. "Once we in Europe and America show ourselves ready to adopt binding agreements," she said, "we will also be able to persuade China and India to join."

US negotiators have already made clear the US will not commit to reductions until Congress acts on legislation before the Dec. 7 conference – something that appears increasingly unlikely.

Without commitment from the United States, it is highly doubtful that China will firmly commit to reductions.

"China doesn't want to be the country that seems to be doing the least on climate change. They want to take their fair share of international responsibility. At this point in time, we don't have an agreement about what is a fair share," says Bernice Lee, research director of energy, environment and resource governance at the Chatham House in London. "The expectations seem to have been lowered for China in the run-up to Copenhagen because United States has yet to announce a plan."

But, Mr. Barrett notes, negotiators should use the conference to focus on agreeing to address smaller issues, like reduction of ozone-depleting hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HFCs) generated by such items as refrigerators and air conditioners. .

"It's a mistake to say Copenhagen is 'make or break,' " he says. "If it breaks, the problem is still there the next morning. We need to come up with architecture for this challenge in which people can see steady progress. There has never been an issue that has gotten so much attention in terms of international diplomacy where so little was achieved."

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