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Nations struggle to make climate deals

by Charles J. Hanley
| December 12, 2010 8:00 PM

CANCUN, Mexico - Weary delegates from almost 200 nations struggled through night and day Friday to cobble together final decisions wrapping up the U.N. climate conference, small steps to revive the faltering, yearslong talks to guard the Earth against planetary warming.

No grand compact mandating deep cuts in global warming gases was in the cards. Instead, the two-week session focused on a proliferation of secondary issues - a "Green Fund" to help poor nations, deforestation, technology sales and other matters.

The cross-cutting interests of rich and poor nations, tropical and temperate, oil producers, desperate islanders and comfortable continental powers, all combined once more to tie up the annual negotiating session of environment ministers down to its scheduled final hours.

"Everything is still being negotiated until we have the full package," the European Union's climate chief, Connie Hedegaard, told reporters. "The balance between the elements is what is at stake today."

Coordinated by host Mexico, small groups of delegates, each led by two ministers, worked overnight and well into Friday behind closed doors at their meeting site, a sprawling beachside resort hotel.

Negotiators had made progress on one key issue: financial support for developing nations to obtain clean-energy technology to cut their own greenhouse gas emissions, and to adapt to potentially damaging climate change - by shifting agricultural practices, for example, and building seawalls against the rise of warming seas.

In the "Copenhagen Accord" that emerged from last year's climate summit in the Danish capital, richer nations promised $100 billion for such a Green Fund by 2020.

"There is a consensus that we set up a climate fund," Bangladesh's state minister for environment, Mohammed Hasan Mahmud, reported Friday. Details of oversight, such as its governing board's balance between rich- and poor-nation representatives, were left to post-Cancun negotiations.

Mahmud lamented that once again a hoped-for overarching pact to slash global emissions was being deferred at least another year, to the 2011 conference in Durban, South Africa.

"I doubt if the Durban (conference) will deliver the desired level of results if the negotiations go the way we have been going through here," he said.

Other issues facing intense last-minute negotiation at Cancun:

• Setting up a global structure to make it easier for developing nations to obtain patented technology for clean energy and climate adaptation.

• Pinning down more elements of a complex, controversial plan to compensate poorer nations for protecting their climate-friendly forests.

• Taking voluntary pledges of emissions controls made under the Copenhagen Accord by the U.S., China and other nations, and "anchoring" them in a Cancun document, giving them more formal U.N. status.

• Agreeing on methods for monitoring and verifying that developing nations are fulfilling those voluntary pledges.

In the 1992 U.N. climate treaty, the world's nations promised to do their best to rein in carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases emitted by industry, transportation and agriculture. In the two decades since, the annual conferences' only big advance came in 1997 in Kyoto, Japan, when parties agreed on modest mandatory reductions by richer nations.

But the U.S., alone in the industrial world, rejected the Kyoto Protocol, complaining it would hurt its economy and that such emerging economies as China and India should have taken on emissions obligations.

Since then China has replaced the U.S. as the world's biggest emitter, but it has resisted calls that it assume legally binding commitments - not to lower its emissions, but to restrain their growth.

Here at Cancun such issues came to a head, as Japan and Russia fought pressure to acknowledge in a final decision that they will commit to a second period of emissions reductions under Kyoto, whose current targets expire in 2012.

The Japanese complained that with the rise of China, India, Brazil and others, the 37 Kyoto industrial nations now account for only 27 percent of global greenhouse emissions. They want a new, legally binding pact obligating the U.S., China and other major emitters.

The upcoming takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives by the Republicans, many of whom dismiss strong scientific evidence of human-caused warming, rules out any carbon-capping legislation for at least two years, however.

While the decades-long talks stumble along, climate change moves ahead.

The atmosphere's concentration of carbon dioxide now stands at about 390 parts per million, up from 280 ppm before the industrial age. Scientists project average global temperatures, which rose 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit in the 20th century, will jump by as much as 11.5 degrees F by 2100 if too little is done.

The U.N. Environment Program estimates the voluntary Copenhagen pledges, even if fulfilled, would go only 60 percent of the way toward keeping the temperature rise below a dangerous 3.6 degrees F above preindustrial levels.

Oceans are rising at twice the rate of the 20th century, researchers say, and Pacific islanders report they're already losing shoreline and settlements to encroaching seas.

"It's worrying to imagine what will happen 10 years from now at this rate," said Bruno Sekoli of Lesotho, a spokesman for poorer nations.

"Climate change is a problem that has to be solved. There is no other way."

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