U.S., China help climate talks, but tangles remain

While some progress has been made ahead of next month's climate change talks, there will still be plenty of big tangles in Copenhagen, observers say.

3 min read

OSLO--Promises of greenhouse gas curbs by China and the United States brighten prospects for next month's U.N. climate summit but leave big tangles over cash, rich nations' emissions cuts, and how to tie down a legal treaty.

"This is clearly some progress on the Copenhagen road," Frank Jotzo, deputy director of the Australian National University's Climate Change Institute, said of pledges by the world's top two emitters to tackle global warming.

But he noted China's goal of slowing its rising emissions by 2020 was voluntary and President Barack Obama's plan to cut U.S. emissions by 3 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 faced obstacles in the Senate.

Indeed, China's goal of reducing carbon intensity--the amount of greenhouse gases emitted per yuan of economic activity--by 40 percent to 45 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels still means its emissions will rise, but less than economic growth.

However, analysts welcomed Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Obama's decisions to go to the December 7-18 talks in Copenhagen as a sign of personal commitment to a deal. Obama will visit on December 9, before the main U.N. summit on the last two days.

But Obama's proposed emissions cuts are probably too small to encourage other rich nations to make deeper offers in Denmark. Industrialized nations as a group are offering cuts in emissions averaging between 14 percent and 18 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.

"It's not enough in itself to unlock new offers," said Knut Alfsen, research director of the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo.

But he said that Washington could sweeten its offer, perhaps with money for research and development or aid to help poor countries adapt to the impacts of climate change such as droughts, more powerful cyclones, or rising sea levels.

Silent on funds
"The White House...was noticeably silent about finance" in announcing Obama's plans for Copenhagen, said Kim Carstensen, head of the WWF environmental group's global climate initiative.

The United Nations wants at least $10 billion a year to help developing nations cope with climate change and convince them that the rich are committed to fighting global warming. And it wants mechanisms to raise far more in the long term.

Carstensen said Obama was likely to argue that his greenhouse goal is a 17 percent cut from 2005 levels after sharp rises since 1990 and sets the United States on a path for deeper cuts than many of its industrial allies by 2030.

Cuts by rich nations are far below demands by developing nations such as China and India that they need to cut by between 25 percent and 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 to avert the worst of global warming.

Analysts also say there are uncertainties about the final form of a Copenhagen deal since most nations say time is too short for Copenhagen to agree to a full legal treaty. Denmark wants a "politically binding" pact and a legally binding text in 2010.

"A politically binding promise by a politician...is a meaningless term," said Tom Burke, of the E3G think-tank in London. "There is a serious intent but what it means is fuzzy."

Group of Eight nations, for instance, often make political promises without following up.

"At the end of the day, the atmosphere doesn't care if it's a binding agreement or not, it cares about whether countries are doing action," said Jake Schmidt, of the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington.

Additional reporting by David Fogarty in Singapore, Jeff Mason in Washington, and Emma Graham-Harrison in Beijing.