Climate summit yields no progress on CO2 targets

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Despite hopes that China would unveil targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions and break the deadlock in global climate talks, President Hu Jintao told a United Nations summit that Beijing will put a “notable” brake on the country’s soaring carbon emissions.

The leader of the world’s biggest emitter promised that China would cut “carbon intensity,” or the amount of carbon dioxide produced for each dollar of economic output, over the decade to 2020. 

A follow-up treaty to the Kyoto Protocol is supposed to be finalised at talks starting on 7 December in Copenhagen, but diplomats have made almost no progress towards an agreement – a point stressed repeatedly by world leaders gathering in New York yesterday (22 September).

China edges closer to a firm commitment?

His pledge was perceived as going in the right direction as China had previously rejected rich nations’ demands for measurable curbs on its emissions, arguing that economic development must come first while millions of its citizens still live in abject poverty. However, the promise disappointed those who had expected China to unveil sound targets. 

“I didn’t hear new initiatives so much,” said Todd Stern, US special envoy on climate change and one of the most vocal critics of China’s emissions policy. “It depends on what the number is and he didn’t indicate the extent to which those reductions would be made.” 

Nobel laureate and former US Vice-President Al Gore praised China for “impressive leadership” and said Hu’s goals pointed to more action. “They are very important and we’ve had […] indications that in the event there is dramatic progress in these negotiations, then China will be prepared to do even more,” he said. 

China expects to soon be able to announce targets for planned cuts in “carbon intensity,” the amount of carbon dioxide produced for each dollar of economic output, over the decade to 2020, a senior Chinese official said on Tuesday. 

“We are studying this issue and we should be able to announce a target soon,” Xie Zhenhua, China’s top environment official, told reporters. 

President Hu also made clear, however, that China had high expectations of the rest of the world, repeating a long-standing request for more support in moving away from dirty growth. 

Backed by India and other developing nations, China argues that rich nations emit more per person and enjoyed emissions-intensive industrialisation themselves, so they have no right to demand that others behave differently: unless they are willing to pay for it. 

“Developed countries should take up their responsibility and provide new, additional, adequate and predictable financial support to developing countries,” Hu said. 

US president entangled by domestic battles

US President Barack Obama, who in his speech at the UN challenged world leaders to overcome “doubts and difficulties” and reach a global accord on climate change, faces scepticism over whether he can deliver legislation in his own country. Obama said yesterday that “we cannot meet this challenge unless all the largest emitters of greenhouse gas pollution act together”.

Despite reaffirming his commitment to push his country towards low-carbon growth, he admitted progress is marred by domestic battles. Environmental groups and government officials are questioning whether Obama can win the Senate’s approval for climate-change legislation passed by the House in June. 

US president and lawmakers remain entangled in a debate about overhauling the US healthcare system. 

In a summary of Tuesday’s talks among world leaders, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted that there was convergence on five key issues, including enhanced measures to help the most vulnerable and poorest adapt to the impact of climate change as well as setting emission reduction targets for industrialised countries. 

Developing countries asked to stop bickering and act responsibly

Addressing the summit, UN General Assembly President Ali Treki, a veteran Libyan diplomat, said poor countries, which are least responsible for the problem of climate change, often suffered first and foremost from its impact. 

“In sub-Saharan Africa, in the deltas of Asia or among the Pacific Islands and elsewhere, climate changes such as rising sea levels, floods, droughts, hurricanes and other changed weather patterns are threatening not only hard-won progress in the battle against poverty, but the existence of entire nations,” Treki warned. 

In his speech to world leaders, President of the Maldives Mohamed Nasheed struck a plaintive note by saying that his country’s fate depended on the ability of the developed nations to stop the political bickering and come to an agreement on global warming. “If things go business-as-usual, we will not live,” he said at the UN climate summit. “We will die. Our country will not exist.” 

Nasheed, who is chairman of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), said the developed nations had to acknowledge their historic responsibility for global warming and accept binding emission reduction targets. 

Meanwhile, the developing world had to be ready to accept binding emission reduction targets under the principle of common but differentiated responsibility, as long as rich nations provided the tools, technology and finance to reform the developing world’s economic base and pursue carbon-neutral development, he said. 

Sudan’s Environment Minister Ahmad Babiker Nahar, speaking on behalf of the Group of 77 (G77), said that to ensure success in Copenhagen, all parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) must be willing to set ambitious targets. 

French President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed that heads of state from major economies meet in November to discuss the climate change agenda ahead of December's climate summit in Copenhagen. "Considering how complex this negotiation is, a new summit before Copenhagen is needed," Sarkozy told a UN climate meeting in New York. 

Sarkozy said the proposed November meeting would allow the world's biggest emitters "to make clearer commitments to ensure Copenhagen's success," according to the text of his prepared remarks. The Copenhagen meeting is aimed at negotiating a broader climate pact to replace the UN's Kyoto Protocol. 

Rwandan President Paul Kagame told the summit that while Africa was likely to suffer more from climate change than other regions, it had fewer resources to handle the challenge. "Today's event should not be considered a new round of 'the blame game,' as pointing fingers would be in poor taste and counterproductive," Kagame reasoned.

Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, who holds the rotating presidency of the EU, warned of a deadlock. "The negotiations are going far too slowly," he said.The debate over climate change is wrapped in a range of political and economic conflicts. Rajendra K. Pachauri, the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, warned that current emissions trajectories were propelling the world toward the panel’s worst-case scenarios. 

“Science leaves us no space for inaction now,” he said "We heard a lot of urgency in the words of the world leaders who spoke in the opening session," said David Waskow, a spokesman for Oxfam International. "Those suffering from famine, drought and flooding now and in future generations will not be comforted by just recognition of the problem, they need action," Waskow added. 

"President Obama struck all the right notes. The question is whether he and (the US) Congress will make music with meaning in the next few months," he argued. 

Speaking at the summit, India foreign affairs minister S.M. Krishna said his country continues to face enormous developmental challenges and poverty eradication remains the nation's top priority. "Nearly 200 millions live on less than one dollar a day and nearly 500 millions do not have access to modern sources of energy," he said. 

"Our overriding priority, therefore, has to be eradication of poverty for which we must address our energy poverty and use all sources of energy, including fossil fuels," Krishna added. 

The global community is currently engaged in negotiations to agree a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.

The first United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) talks in Bonn (29 March–8 April) launched negotiations for a draft agreement in view of the final conference in Copenhagen later this year (EURACTIV 09/04/09).

The draft negotiating text, prepared ahead of June's second round of climate talks, revealed a divide between rich and poor countries. Developing nations are asking their industrialised counterparts to commit to sizeable CO2 reductions and to offer financial aid to help poor nations with their efforts. But developed countries have not made any firm commitments on funding, and only the EU has taken on a firm CO2 reduction target, which nevertheless fails to meet the developing world's demands (EURACTIV 29/04/09).

In the meantime, the negotiating text has ballooned to hundreds of pages as all parties have reacted with amendments. Little progress was made at the June talks on financing for developing countries to mitigate and adapt to global warming (EURACTIV 15/06/09), while an informal round in August barely even raised these issues (EURACTIV 18/08/09).

At the sidelines of a G8 meeting in Italy on 9 July, the Major Economies Forum, comprising 17 countries that are accountable for 75% of global emissions, agreed for the first time to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius but failed to come up with targets (EURACTIV 10/07/09).

  • 22 Sept.: UN climate summit in New York
  • 24-25 Sept.: G20 summit in Pittsburgh
  • 28 Sept.-9 Oct.: UN climate negotiations in Bangkok
  • 29-30 Oct.: European summit
  • 2-6 Nov.: UN climate negotiations in Barcelona
  • 7-18 Dec.: UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen

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