Climate-Summit Agreement Still Far Off

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Lu Guang / Greenpeace International / EPA

Ice sculptures made from glacial meltwater at the Temple of Earth in Beijing mark the start of the 100-day countdown to the U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen

If you happened to walk into the Temple of Earth in Beijing — the nearly 500-year-old monument where Chinese emperors once prayed for good harvests — on Aug. 28, you would have noticed a steady drip. The environmental group Greenpeace placed ice sculptures of 100 children — made of the glacial meltwater that feeds China's great rivers — inside the temple to symbolize the risk that climate change and disappearing ice poses to the 1 billion–plus people in Asia who are threatened by water shortages.

But there was another side to that symbolism. Friday marked 100 days before the beginning of this year's U.N. climate-change summit, to be held in Copenhagen, which is emerging as the world's last good chance to craft a new global-warming deal. With time running out, global negotiators still seem far apart, and there's a growing fear that the world could fumble the opportunity. "Negotiations are moving much more slowly than they need to be," says Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists and a veteran of past climate talks. "If we're going to get a climate deal by Copenhagen, we're going to need political will injected into the process — not just rhetoric."

Rhetoric is one thing that the stop-and-start global diplomacy over climate change has never lacked. It's the strength of political principle that has been the truly threatened resource. For eight years, that was largely the fault of the U.S. Under former President George W. Bush, U.S. diplomats played an obstructionist role in climate-change talks, and even before Bush's arrival, the country failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol — the international treaty intended to curb global warming. The U.S. Senate rejected the pact by a cool 95-0, and Bush later pulled it off the table for future consideration.

But with the election of President Barack Obama, who has made climate change one of his priorities, there was hope that the path could be cleared to a more equitable and effective global-warming deal. The timing is right — Kyoto expires in 2012, which means that a replacement treaty needs to be in place soon.

With little more than three months till the U.N. summit, however, things are in doubt. To be sure, the Obama Administration is pushing for a global-warming deal, and a cap-and-trade bill that was passed by the House and is now up for debate in the Senate would finally commit the U.S. to real carbon reductions. But under the new law — if it passes — U.S. emissions would fall only 13% from 1990 levels by 2020. The European Union, meanwhile, has pledged to make cuts of 20% from 1990 levels by 2020, meaning there is still considerable daylight between what seems politically feasible in the U.S. and E.U. And while governments at last month's G-8 meeting pledged to keep the global-temperature increase from climate change to 3.6°F (2°C) or less, that would require emissions cuts from developed nations of as much as 40% by 2020. No leader in the world seems willing to go that far. "There's no doubt we can and should be doing more," says Meyer.

Deeper divisions exist between the developed and developing world. Under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) — the highly acronymized organization that oversees climate diplomacy — rich and poor nations have what is called "common but differentiated responsibilities" on cutting carbon. Decoded, that means rich nations have to take the lead on reducing emissions — as seems fair, since most of the carbon in the atmosphere has been put there over the past 200 years by the developed world — but poor nations need to take some action as well. Fine, but the emergence of China, already the world's biggest carbon emitter, and to a lesser extent India, has complicated that equation. If China doesn't constrain its emissions, there's no hope of controlling global warming. Yet while China is getting richer all the time, it's still a developing country. Both China and India are likely to resist calls to make any sharp reductions to their emissions anytime soon, even as they — and other developing nations — ask for billions in assistance from rich nations to deal with the climate change they're helping to drive. That's a formula for deadlock — which is exactly how the most recent round of negotiations ended, at a meeting in Bonn in mid-August, with a 200-page document that included more than 2,000 points of disagreement. "We are nowhere near any kind of agreement for climate change," says Janos Pasztor, director of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's climate-change support team. "Time is not on our side."

That means environmentalists will need to make the most of what time does remain. U.N. chief Ban is leading the way, organizing a one-day summit for world leaders on climate change during the General Assembly meeting in late September. "We want them to talk with each other, interact with each other," says Pasztor. That's key; climate-change policy has become far too important to be left up to the environment and energy ministers of the world, whose influence tends to be limited.

But civil society has a role to play as well, by mobilizing the public to push politicians ahead. The Climate Group — a global nonprofit — is sponsoring events in the U.S. and China in the lead-up to Copenhagen, trying to build a wave of public support for more-ambitious carbon cuts. "This is the moment," says Steve Howard, the Climate Group's CEO. "If we lose this chance, we may not get it back." That dripping sound could be our last opportunity to fix the climate.