Climate talks stumble with deal in sight

Times Staff Writers

After two weeks of often rancorous negotiations here that resulted in a last-minute compromise to appease the United States, United Nations climate talks unexpectedly dissolved into turmoil today, reflecting the disarray in the global community about how to deal with rising temperatures caused by greenhouse gases.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon arrived early today to help resolve the last-minute snags, which pushed the summit into an extended session.

Negotiators worked to address the final complaints and were optimistic a consensus would soon be reached on the international agreement, which will chart the next two years of negotiations for a new global warming treaty to succeed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.


But even if those complaints were resolved, it was clear that the most contentious issue of the talks -- setting hard emissions caps for individual countries -- would simply be pushed into the future in anticipation of the election of a new U.S. president who might be more amenable to restrictions.

The Bush administration has steadfastly refused to accept any mandatory restrictions on emissions, saying that they would choke the U.S. economy.

Delegates thought they had overcome Washington’s objections and reached a final agreement. But their hopes were dashed when India objected that the document did not require industrialized nations to help developing countries control their emissions with technology and funding.

China also objected that organizers were attempting to hold a vote on the proposal while India and representatives of other developing countries were out of the convention hall attempting to negotiate changes in the wording.

The unexpected brouhaha postponed what was thought to have been an easy ratification of the document and a successful conclusion of the meeting on the Indonesian island of Bali.

The United States had been portrayed as the stubborn villain of the meeting all week. Blame for the newest dispute was also laid at America’s doorstep.

“You can’t expect us to have national mitigating actions without technology support from outside, without financing from outside and without capacity building from outside,” said Kapil Sibal, head of the Indian delegation.

He blamed the United States, specifically, for trying to block any obligation to help developing countries. “They don’t want to give us any technology support,” he said.

The Indian position reflected one of the central themes raised by developing nations at the meeting -- that the United States and other wealthy countries had caused global warming with their profligate use of energy and now expected less-developed countries to curb their industrialization to prevent the problem from getting worse.

The document that negotiators have been working on for two weeks is to lay the groundwork for negotiations on a climate treaty to replace Kyoto, which expires in 2012. A primary sticking point during the last week was the inclusion of tough emissions targets recommended by the U.N’s. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, in a series of reports issued this year.

In a last-minute compromise that seemed to pave the way for acceptance of the document, those targets -- which include a 25% to 40% reduction in emissions by industrialized countries by 2020 and a 50% reduction in overall emissions worldwide by 2050 -- were relegated to a simple footnote in the preamble.

The footnote refers to three pages in the final IPCC report detailing emission reductions that will be necessary to restrict global warming to no more than a two-degree-Fahrenheit increase from current levels.

The European Union, in particular, had been attempting to get negotiations rolling with that temperature target firmly in delegates’ sights, going so far as to threaten a boycott of the meeting of the 17 largest polluters planned next month in Hawaii by President Bush if explicit emissions targets were not included.

The White House intended the Hawaii meeting to allow each of the countries, which account for 80% of the world’s emissions, to set their own voluntary targets for reductions.

The eventual compromise of placing the targets in a footnote, suggested by Indonesian Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar, was hashed out overnight Friday and allowed the delegates to save some face. His compromise did not commit any country to a firm reduction in emissions or, in the case of developing nations, to limits on growth of emissions.

Some delegates called the compromise weak, but it was, at least, strong enough to win the Europeans’ support.

“With or without numbers, we have a strong pathway that in two years will reach an agreement that we hope will be effective against climate change,” said Stavros Dimas, the EU’s environmental minister.

“This is a compromise. We can live with this,” German representative Sigmar Gabriel said.

The U.S. also seemed pleased. “We can live with the preamble,” chief U.S. negotiator Harlan Watson said.

The text cited the “urgency” of dealing with global warming and called for negotiation of a new treaty to be completed by 2009, when delegates are scheduled to meet again in Copenhagen. U.N. officials have argued that early completion of the treaty is necessary to allow time for ratification by each country and to give a clear signal to industries that are developing new pollution control measures that will help meet the targets.

The gutting of the document was widely considered to be a victory for both the United States and its allies, who argued that such caps would choke their economies, and for big developing nations such as China and India, who argued that any restrictions would impede their economic growth.

Delegates had tried to put the best face on the outcome.

“You can ask if we need to have a meeting in Bali to decide this, but you must not forget that it was only a couple of years ago that Bush opposed any negotiations” at all, said Erik Solheim, Norway’s environment minister.

“Nobody ever thought the U.S. would agree to binding targets here,” said Philip Clapp, deputy managing director of the Pew Environment Group. “It’s not the strongest document we could have achieved, [but] it’s a start.”

Conference rules called for the document to be approved unanimously by the roughly 190 participating nations.

But even the watered-down document caused problems on the final day, leaving the eventual fate of the meeting up in the air.

“The whole house of cards could come crashing down. We might not have an agreement,” said Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists.


Zarembo reported from Nusa Dua and Maugh from Los Angeles.