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Divisions Persist On Core Questions As Leaders Arrive to UN Climate Conference

Source: WSJ

Posted on 16 Dec 2009

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The United Nations' effort to muster global action against climate change appeared to move backward Tuesday, as the world's leading economies traded barbs over the most basic questions about how to divide responsibility for curbing greenhouse-gas emissions.

World leaders began arriving Tuesday for the climax of the two-week U.N. climate conference in the Danish capital as disagreements deepened among negotiators for the U.S., the European Union and a bloc of developing nations led by China.

Several leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Danish Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen, have begun calling their counterparts in various countries in an attempt to salvage a deal by the Friday deadline, according to people familiar with the calls.

The disagreements involve fundamental issues: the size of emission reductions that individual countries should take on, the amount of money rich countries should pay poor countries to help fund a cleanup, and the extent of monitoring that countries should have to accept so other nations can verify they actually are implementing whatever environmental steps they promise to take.

"This is not a climate-change negotiation," said Janos Pasztor, director of the U.N. secretary-general's climate-change support team. "It's about something much more fundamental. It's about economic strength." Countries, he added, "just have to slug it out."

As the wrangling continued, a new draft agreement circulated Tuesday moved backward from an earlier proposal, lacking any targets for carbon cuts and financing.

The new draft stipulated that developed countries were historically responsible for most global emissions of greenhouse gases and so "must take the lead in combating climate change" by abating their carbon emissions and providing money and technology to poorer nations. That was a bow to developing nations, following a protest Monday by members of the Group of 77, which includes poor countries as well as large emerging economies like China, India and Brazil, whose representatives briefly walked out of the talks.

The anger and distrust spilling into the open in Copenhagen have been building over more than a decade of climate diplomacy.

An existing climate-change treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, requires developed countries that ratified it to cut their emissions by a collective 5% from 1990 levels by 2012. But that accord doesn't curb greenhouse gases from the world's two biggest emitters, which together account for 40% of greenhouse-gas emissions. China, as a developing country, isn't required to cut its emissions, and the U.S. didn't ratify the treaty. The basic purpose of the Copenhagen conference was to come up with some way to rein in emissions world-wide.

The U.S. and China each announced specific pledges to address greenhouse-gas emissions before the conference started. But the two have been locked in a standoff over the U.S.'s insistence that China commit to a legally binding agreement -- a step China has resisted -- and the degree to which China's actions should be open to international review.

Developing countries argue that wealthy nations have reneged on past pledges to address climate change. In particular, China suggests the U.S. has failed to honor its agreement under a broad document called the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change to constrain U.S. emissions and to provide money for developing countries to curb their own greenhouse-gas output. The U.S. was a party to the 1992 accord, even though the U.S. didn't ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which grew out of the framework.

Wealthy countries are "not willing to take any real action," said Xie Zhenhua, the head of China's delegation at the talks.

China also doesn't want to submit to international verification of whether it is meeting emissions targets that it funds on its own.

U.S. officials say they are only asking Chinese officials to give substance to a joint statement issued by Chinese President Hu Jintao and Mr. Obama when the U.S. president visited China last month.

Amid the bickering, one arcane detail has taken on great symbolic importance: the fact that the U.S. wants to use 2005 as the "baseline" year for cutting emissions, instead of 1990 as called for in earlier agreements.

Todd Stern, the top U.S. climate negotiator, said that change was justified, allowed and not very important.

"The reality is we didn't become part of Kyoto, and the framework convention has a 1990 baseline. But it was in a nonbinding, aspirational context," he said.

European leaders are concerned the U.S. and China will try to opt out of any binding deal by blaming each other for not offering ambitious proposals.

The EU has said it will cut its emissions 20% by 2020, and by 30% if a strong global deal is reached. The EU doesn't want to "sell [its] targets cheap," said Andreas Carlgren, environment minister of Sweden.

But U.S. officials say they are being unfairly criticized. Europe's proposed emissions cuts are measured against 1990 -- which was before the Soviet Union's breakup sent Eastern Europe's economy, and its emissions, plummeting.

Measured against 2005, said Mr. Stern, the EU's target for 2020 amounts to an emissions cut of only 13%. And that, he said, isn't as aggressive as the 17% cut from 2005 that the U.S. has promised.