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Monday, Dec. 7, 2009

Breakthrough hoped for at climate talks

Can world muster the political will?

Staff writer

COPENHAGEN — A conference billed by some as the world's last chance to halt global warming and catastrophic climate change opens Monday in Copenhagen in an atmosphere of optimism among U.N. delegates and political leaders that a basic agreement can be reached now and a formal treaty hammered out later.

Many scientists and environmentalists worry, however, that whatever emerges will be too little and too late.

Formally known as the 15th conference of the parties, or COP15, under the U.N. Climate Change Convention, the nearly two-week conference of about 190 nations is expected to forge a basic agreement on a binding treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions between 2012 and 2015, with a final treaty to be decided hopefully by the end of next year, according to the United Nations.

The eventual treaty will replace the Kyoto Protocol, which was signed in 1997.

As of Saturday, leaders from nearly 100 countries were expected to attend the last day of the conference on Dec. 18 to finalize the deal and decide the next step, which is likely to include another conference next year.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, U.S. President Barack Obama, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh are among those scheduled to be on hand.

Obama originally announced he would stop off in Copenhagen this Wednesday, on his way to Norway to collect the Nobel Peace Prize. He changed his mind after pressure to be at the summit finale came from world leaders and key U.S. senators whose support the president needs to first get domestic climate legislation passed and then agree to ratify the Copenhagen Protocol once it is finished.

Obama's decision to join the summit on Dec. 18 caps an intense diplomatic effort by U.N. officials to ensure the world does not judge Copenhagen a failure.

Pre-COP15 negotiations in Bonn last June and then in Bangkok and Barcelona this autumn ended with deep divisions between developed and developing countries over who should take the lead in cutting emissions, and by how much.

This led the U.N. to conclude Copenhagen could not produce a legally binding treaty.

With the United States coming to Copenhagen with a proposal to reduce emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels, China agreeing to cut the intensity of its carbon dioxide emissions per unit of gross domestic product by 40 percent to 45 percent in 2020 from 2005 levels, and India saying it will reduce its carbon intensity 25 percent per GDP unit up to 2020, there are renewed hopes among negotiators that momentum has shifted and that an agreement on numbers will be reached.

Disagreements between the U.S. and developing nations, particularly China and India, over the details, such as the amount of reduction by developed nations and the year the percentage is based on, and whether developing nations should also have numerical commitments, have long been the main roadblocks to an agreement. China and the U.S. together are responsible for nearly 40 percent of total emissions.

A 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.N.'s advisory body on global warming, recommended that to avoid the worst effects of climate change this century, developed nations should commit to a 25 percent to 40 percent cut compared with 1990 levels by 2020, and that developing nations not continue business as usual.

Since then, these figures have become the subject of great international negotiations and controversy, with developed nations in the European Union and Japan committing to reductions in line with the IPCC recommendation, and others, like the U.S. and Australia, refusing.

Environmentalists and IPCC scientists, however, warn that, while political leaders may be congratulating themselves on the possibility of an agreement in Copenhagen, the latest scientific evidence shows climate change is occurring at a greater rate than was documented in the 2007 report.

Cuts of 40 percent by 2020, based on 1990 levels, and by up to 90 percent by 2050, also based on 1990 levels, continue to be urged by both the IPCC and environmental groups, as well as some governments, to prevent the Earth's average temperature from rising 2 degrees this century, which scientists predict would lead to mass extinctions and climate catastrophes.

Other major issues that will be taken up in Copenhagen include the amount and structure of funding from developed nations to help developing nations take their own action on climate change that is already occurring and to take steps to mitigate the effects of further damage due to rising temperatures.

"Adaptation (to climate change) is going to be absolutely crucial for some societies. It's something that's been neglected and hasn't been talked about," said Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the IPCC.

This is a particularly complex issue, with no general agreement on how much it will cost. The U.S. is discussing offering about $1.2 billion annually for all international climate aid, including adaptation. Yvo de Boer, the U.N. climate chief, has suggested that between $10 billion to $12 billion annually is needed just at the beginning, and that it will get more expensive later. The World Bank has estimated that adapting to climate change will cost between $75 billion and $100 billion a year for the next 40 years.

Japan is expected to play a major role in providing funds and green technology to developing nations. More than 50 Japanese NGO representatives are in Copenhagen and are expected to press the delegation to make details of the so-called Hatoyama Initiative for developing countries clearer.

"Last month, Japan announced it would provide $9 billion under the Hatoyama Initiative. But this is not new funding but money that had been pledged under the previous government. Japan needs to offer a more detailed position in Copenhagen on what kinds of new funding mechanisms and assistance it is prepared to offer," said Mie Asaoka, head of the NGO Kiko Network, on Nov. 29 in Kyoto.

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