Friday, Dec. 18, 2009

As Time Runs Out, Obama Tries to Save a Climate Deal

When President Obama took the stage in Copenhagen on Friday, Dec. 18, the world was impatient. After nearly two weeks of negotiations, including a late night of talks on Thursday, diplomats at the Copenhagen climate summit seemed no closer to forging a practical global-warming agreement. Developed and developing nations remained far apart on emissions reductions and climate finance, and the U.S. and China were still hung up on the issue of transparency. As he began to speak, Obama took the tone of an impatient professor whose students had blown a term-paper deadline. "The question before us is no longer the nature of the [climate] challenge but our capacity to meet it," he said. "While the reality of climate change is not in doubt as the world meets today, our ability to take collective action is in doubt right now, and it hangs in the balance."

Indeed it does. Upon arriving at the Bella Center, Obama was immediately hustled into a closed-door meeting with the leaders of several major economies, including China, France and India, to try to pick up the pieces and forge them into some kind of agreement. (Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was not present at the last-minute meeting, which was interpreted by many as a snub.) The key problems haven't changed much since the beginning of the week, when African nations briefly walked out in protest over what they saw as high-handed negotiating tactics from the host country, Denmark. Developing countries — especially the poorer ones — want stronger emissions-reduction pledges from rich nations and hundreds of billions in climate aid. Rich nations — especially the U.S. — want real and transparent commitments for climate action from major developing nations. "There are deep differences in opinion and views of how we should solve this," Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said Friday morning. "We'll try our best."

There was some progress Thursday after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made clear the U.S.'s support for some $100 billion in long-term climate finance for the developing world. That seemed to sway some developing nations, including Indonesia and Brazil, which stand to benefit significantly from any climate aid linked to deforestation. And though U.S. demands for transparency from developing nations on their climate action had been a sticking point for China, Beijing finally began to show some flexibility on the issue, with a possible willingness to accept some international monitoring. "You could see some progress being made there," said Jake Schmidt, the international-climate-policy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

But observers and delegates say many of the poorest nations — led by Sudan, whose U.N. ambassador, Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping, heads the G-77 negotiating bloc — are still holding up the talks over procedural issues. They insist that developed nations need to make far deeper emissions-reduction pledges than they have so far — the U.S. is offering to make cuts in the range of 17% below 2005 levels by 2020 — and need to beef up climate finance to the developing world. Since the U.N. climate talks work on a consensus basis, any country, no matter how small, can bring the negotiations to a virtual standstill. As a result, diplomats lost precious time during the week, and instead of signing off on a near finished agreement Friday, world leaders are being asked to actually negotiate upon their arrival in Copenhagen. "[Developing nations] want more developed-nation ambitions, more developed-nation aid," says Melinda Kimble, senior vice president of the U.N. Foundation, which has been observing the talks. "It might be worked out, but fewer and fewer people feel that way."

That leaves Obama and other world leaders to try to save the day. But the President is limited in what he can do — the White House has been very clear that he won't offer emissions cuts deeper than those in the range of the cap-and-trade bills now in front of Congress, and long-term climate finance is already on the table. His presence should help convince the doubtful that the U.S. is committed to cutting emissions — there's still a lot of mistrust left over from former President George W. Bush's time in office — but those who expect a miracle will be disappointed. "We're not going there for the sake of something that's called an agreement," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said on Thursday. "Coming back with an empty agreement would be far worse than coming back empty-handed."

There may be hope that the U.S. and China could reach an agreement on transparency, however — in a speech preceding Obama's talk, Chinese Premier Wen spoke about improving the methods for releasing the country's emissions-reduction record, "increasing transparency and actively engaging in international information exchange." That sounds close to the magic words of "measurable, verifiable and reportable" that the U.S. has long demanded of major developing nations.

But both Wen and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who followed him at the podium, also emphasized the importance of raising their people out of poverty and adhering to the "common but differentiated responsibilities" of the Kyoto Protocol, which gave developing nations a pass on mandatory climate actions. At the same time, Obama offered no new concessions from the U.S., at least not in his speech, and seemed mostly intent on simply getting something down on paper, and soon. "We were hoping for some movement from the President," said Bill McKibben, an environmental writer and the leader of the green group "Instead, his response was, Take it or leave it."

That's exactly the offer world leaders and diplomats might face Friday in Copenhagen as they struggle to make up for lost time and produce an agreement before the climate talks end. Expectations for Copenhagen had already been lowered before the summit began, but right now they're dropping even further. Copenhagen was meant to save the world, but its final legacy could be the death of the U.N. climate process as we know it. "These environmental discussions have taken place for almost two decades, and we have very little to show for it other than the increased acceleration of the climate-change phenomenon," Obama said in his conclusion. "The time for talk is over." True enough, but it remains to be seen whether real action will follow.