Just ‘an important beginning’

2009-12-21 00:00

COPENHAGEN — The world will find it hard to get United Nations-led climate talks back on track in Mexico in 2010 after an unambitious deal agreed in Copenhagen set no firm deadline for a legally binding treaty.

Mexico will host the next annual UN ministerial talks from November 29 to December 10, 2010, to build on a “Copenhagen Accord” that seeks to limit temperatures rising to no more than two degrees Celsius above those recorded in pre-industrial times. But it does not spell out how to achieve that goal.

For months, the United Nations had insisted the Copenhagen talks, culminating in a summit of 120 world leaders on Friday, had to be a “turning point” in slowing climate change with nation-by-nation pledges of curbs in greenhouse gas emissions.

On Saturday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon acknowledged the deal — led by the United States and China and which leaves blanks for national commitments — falls short of hopes, but is “an important beginning.”

A shift to Mexico, which sees itself as halfway between rich and poor nations, could help negotiations that almost collapsed amid allegations by Sudan and Venezuela that host Denmark was biased in favour of the interests of the rich.

Mexico “can much better … fill this very difficult task of building bridges,” said Kim Carstensen, head of the global climate initiative of the WWF environmental group.

UN documents adopted in Copenhagen say results of work by key UN groups on ways to slow global warming are to be presented “for adoption” in Mexico — but dropped demands by many nations that texts should be a “legally binding treaty”.

Many nations want the Mexico meeting brought forward.

President Barack Obama hailed the deal, originally worked out with China and other leading emerging economies and backed by most other states, as a historic step and promised to build on “momentum that we established in Copenhagen”.

China and the United States are the top emitters of greenhouse gases. So far the schedule does not reflect urgency.

The next planned UN climate meeting is a regular half-yearly session among officials in Bonn, from May 31 to June 11. By comparison, in 2009 there were three sets of talks in Bonn and other sessions in Bangkok and Barcelona before Copenhagen.

Apart from recognising a two degrees Celsius temperature ceiling, Saturday’s decision supported a “goal” for a $100 billion annual fund by 2020 to help poor countries fight climate change, with a quick-start $10 billion a year from 2010-12.

The deal was not formally adopted by all nations due to opposition by a handful of developing nations who said it ignores the real needs of the poor.

Some analysts said the U.S. and China deal could brighten prospects for action by the U.S. Senate to cap carbon emissions in 2010. The U.S. is the only major industrialised nation with no carbon cap.

“It sets the stage for action in the Senate, where one of the major barriers has been lack of transparency for commitments by China,” wrote Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defence Council. “Now we have that, it can not be an excuse for our senators not to act.”

A problem for Copenhagen was a lack of other looming deadlines.

The first period of the existing Kyoto Protocol, which binds all nations except the United States to cut greenhouse gas emissions, runs until December 31, 2012.

Even so, businesses and carbon markets are clamouring for certainty about the extent of legally binding cuts beyond 2013, to help assess risks, for instance, of building a highlypolluting coal-fired power plant or a cleaner but more costly wind farm.

Copenhagen did not produce many promises, but all major nations have set emissions targets for 2020 since the talks were launched in Bali, Indonesia, in 2007. Many of these were ranges of cuts, conditional on a strong deal in Copenhagen.

Under the “Copenhagen Accord”, a first deadline is for backers to submit plans for curbing greenhouse gas emissions by January 31, 2010, to the United Nations.

“There are big uncertainties about what countries will promise. Will they still give ranges or a fixed number? What will Japan do?” said Alden Meyer, of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The European Union has promised a cut of 20% from 1990 levels by 2020, or 30% if all others act. Japan has been targeting a cut of 25% by 2020, assuming a strong Copenhagen deal, without an explicit fallback number.

Obama has given a provisional pledge of a 17% cut from 2005 levels — which is four percent below 1990.

And the toughest climate “deadline” is likely to be 2015 — the year world emissions would have to peak to give a good chance of limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius, according to the UN’s panel of climate scientists.

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