The Heat Is Online

US Insists on Non-Binding Treaty Language

Glacial Gains in Global Talks on Cleaner Air

The New York Times, Dec. 10, 2005

 

Ever since the first international meeting on the changing atmosphere in 1988, negotiations over what to do about rising levels of heat-trapping smokestack and tailpipe gases have proceeded at a pace similar to that of climate change itself.

 

The two-week United Nations conference that ended here on Saturday was no exception. And as the delegates return to their own countries, with modest, last-minute agreements to keep talking about how to move beyond existing environmental treaties, many scientists and others who keep track of climate change say much more urgent action is needed.

 

Summing up that view, James Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said at a conference in San Francisco this week that a continuation of "business as usual" would result in so much warming as to "constitute a different planet."

 

He said that a host of actions could be taken now to keep the temperature increase out of the danger zone, including big cuts in emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas emitted by everything from pipeline leaks to landfills, and shifts to more efficient vehicle designs.

But he and other experts who see warming as a threat have begun to worry that existing efforts, both within and outside of international agreements, may not work in time.

 

In Montreal, progress was measured in the tiniest of increments. It was really two meetings in one, aimed limiting global warming under a pair of separate but related international agreements - the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change and its offspring document, the Kyoto Protocol.

 

The first pact, in force for 189 countries, has voluntary goals for cutting emissions that were exceeded long ago.

 

The Kyoto agreement, an addendum to the convention agreement that took effect this year, added binding, measurable targets and timetables for cutting emissions, but just for the three dozen industrialized countries of nearly 160 nations in all, that ratified it.

In Montreal, the parties to the Kyoto treaty, under pressure mainly from Europe and environmental groups, agreed to start talking about what comes after its terms expire in 2012.

 

But they did not set a hard deadline, only a goal of finishing talks "as soon as possible" so that new restrictions - if they agree on any - take effect right after the old ones expire.

 

The United States, which has not ratified Kyoto, spent much of the meeting opposing language aimed at starting fresh talks on ways to increase the effectiveness of the original Framework Convention.

In the wee hours of Saturday morning, the United States finally agreed to allow new discussions, but only after everyone consented to a huge escape clause saying any talks will be "open and nonbinding," and "will not open any negotiations leading to new commitments."

 

Developing countries, which have always been excused from any obligations under both treaties, showed hints that they might be willing to help in the fight to cut emissions, although with no firm targets.

 

Then the gavel cracked at dawn.

 

In subsequent news conferences, weary warriors from the talks, including Margaret Beckett, Britain's environment minister and head of the European Union delegation, proclaimed success, saying that a bigger, subtler shift had occurred behind the scenes - a shift in tone from obstruction to cooperation - particularly among poorer countries.

"For those who actually take part in these negotiations this is a substantial achievement," she said.

She said the Kyoto treaty has created markets for carbon credits, which are earned by cutting emissions, that would now expand to developing countries under several agreements completed in Montreal. That should be an engine promoting energy efficiency and innovations, she said.

"There is growing recognition of the costs of not taking action," Mrs. Beckett said, "and of the opportunities that come with taking action itself."

But an enormous roadblock remains: the continuing standoff between the largest developing nations, China and India, and the established industrial giants.

The developing countries have repeatedly refused to commit themselves to greenhouse-gas limits until the established industrial states make meaningful progress. By contrast, the United States, the biggest source of the heat-trapping gases, insists on movement from these emerging economic competitors before it considers cuts.

While the United States Senate passed a resolution earlier this year calling for mandatory limits, the House has shown no signs of movement. As Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who has been pushing for modest curbs on greenhouse gases, put it in a recent interview, "Democracy isn't very good at addressing incremental problems."

Groups of scientists and engineers have called for far more aggressive investments in research on new technologies that could generate energy without emissions.

But investments on that scale are unlikely to come without a big shift in national priorities, which are still focused more on homeland security than energy security.

In the meantime, emissions have risen, and so has the globe's average temperature. It reached a temporary modern peak in 1998 when the Pacific Ocean had one of its periodic natural hot spells, El Niño.

Now, even with no Niño in sight, 2005 is nearly a sure bet to be the warmest year in recorded history, Dr. Hansen said.

One of the other achievements listed by the negotiators as the conference ended was a new financial contribution to a pot of money for developing countries -- to help them adapt to warming.

 

U.S., Under Fire, Eases Its Stance in Climate Talks

The New York Times, Andrew C. Revkin, Dec. 10, 2005

MONTREAL, Saturday, Dec. 10 - The United States dropped its opposition early Saturday morning to nonbinding talks on addressing global warming after a few words were adjusted in the text of statements that, 24 hours earlier, prompted a top American official to walk out on negotiations.

At the same time, other industrialized nations that have signed on to the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty binding them to curb emissions of greenhouse gases, agreed to start meeting to set new deadlines once the existing pact's terms expire in 2012.

Such is the nature of progress in the 17-years-and-counting effort by the world's nations to act in the face of scientists' conclusions that emissions from burning essential fuels like coal and oil are raising temperatures and could potentially disrupt climate patterns and inundate coasts.

The United States and China, the world's current and projected leaders in greenhouse gas emissions, still refused to agree to mandatory steps to curtail the emissions as the talks drew toward a close early Saturday.

But there was a growing sense that some longstanding barriers, particularly between developed and developing nations, were starting to erode under the weight of evidence that climate was shifting in potentially dangerous ways.

In a sign of its growing isolation on climate issues, the Bush administration had come under sharp criticism for walking out of informal discussions on finding new ways to reduce emissions under the United Nations' 1992 treaty on climate change.

The walkout, by Harlan L. Watson, the chief American negotiator here, came Friday, shortly after midnight, on what was to have been the last day of the talks, during which the administration has been repeatedly assailed by the leaders of other wealthy industrialized nations for refusing to negotiate to advance the goals of that treaty, and in which former President Bill Clinton chided both sides for lack of flexibility.

At a closed session of about 50 delegates, Dr. Watson objected to the proposed title of a statement calling for long-term international cooperation to carry out the 1992 climate treaty, participants said. He then got up from the table and departed.

Environmentalists here called his actions the capstone of two weeks of American efforts to prevent any fresh initiatives from being discussed. "This shows just how willing the U.S. administration is to walk away from a healthy planet and its responsibilities to its own people," said Jennifer Morgan, director of the climate change project at the World Wildlife Fund.

In the end, though, some adjustments of wording - including a shift from "mechanisms" to the softer word "opportunities" in one statement - ended the dispute.

In Washington, Adam Ereli, a State Department spokesman, said the administration was determined to achieve greenhouse-gas reductions not through binding limits but through long-term work to develop cleaner technologies.

"If you want to talk about global consciousness," he said, "I'd say there's one country that is focused on action, that is focused on dialogue, that is focused on cooperation, and that is focused on helping the developing world, and that's the United States."

There were still a few more details involving Russia that were being worked on, but delegates and participants among the 9,000 people in the halls were confident the overall deal would hold.

The amount of progress is still achingly slow, many environmentalist say. The world's major sources of greenhouse emissions - the United States, big developing countries like China and India, and a bloc led by Europe and Japan - remain divided over how to proceed under both the 1992 treaty and the Kyoto Protocol, an addendum that took effect this year.

The original treaty - since ratified by 189 nations, including the United States - has no binding restrictions. The Kyoto pact does impose mandatory limits on industrialized nations, but they do not apply to developing nations, including China and India. The United States and Australia have rejected that pact.

On Friday, countries bound by the Kyoto Protocol were close to agreeing on a plan to negotiate a new set of targets and timetables for cutting emissions after its terms expire.

But under pressure from some countries already having trouble meeting Kyoto targets, the language included no specific year for ending talks on next steps, instead indicating that parties would "aim to complete" work "as soon as possible."

Early in the afternoon, Mr. Clinton gave a hastily arranged speech to the thousands of delegates in which he sketched a route around the impasse that included gentle rebukes of those seeking concrete targets and also of the Bush administration.

Mr. Clinton said that, given the impasse over global targets for emissions, countries might do better to consider specific, smaller initiatives to advance and disseminate technologies that could greatly reduce emissions in both rich and poor countries.

"If you can't agree on a target, agree on a set of projects so everyone has something to do when they get up in the morning," he said.

In a comment clearly directed at the Bush administration, he declared to waves of applause that just as the United States had taken a precautionary approach in its fight against terrorism, "there is no more important place in the world to apply the principle of precaution than the area of climate change."

"I think it's crazy for us to play games with our children's future," Mr. Clinton said. "We know what's happening to the climate, we have a highly predictable set of consequences if we continue to pour greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and we know we have an alternative that will lead us to greater prosperity."

The Montreal talks have yielded significant new signs that developing countries are beginning to consider ways to promote economic growth without increasing emissions.

Papua New Guinea, Costa Rica and Brazil all proposed ways to add incentives for reducing destruction of rain forests to the climate agreements. China agreed to additional discussions under both the 1992 and Kyoto treaties about ways to involve big developing countries in projects that could curb the heat-trapping pollution - as long as they did not involve binding limits.

But even if new talks under the Kyoto treaty lead to new targets for industrial nations, some scientists said Friday that they would not be enough to stem harmful warming without broader actions by the biggest and fastest-growing polluters.

In a statement from London, Lord Martin Rees, the new president of Britain's Royal Society, an independent national scientific academy, said the disputes among wealthy nations over how to reduce emissions were distracting them from carrying out steps to make the cuts.

Environmental campaigners insisted that the Kyoto process would eventually force other countries, particularly the United States, to act. These advocates predicted a growing market for "cap and trade" credits, in which businesses acquire credits by reducing their greenhouse gas emissions below a required level, then sell those credits to other businesses or even other countries, which can then increase their output of emissions above the target level.

 

UN talks set road map for Kyoto beyond 2012
Reuters News Service, Dec. 10, 2005

MONTREAL (Reuters) - Environment ministers agreed on Saturday to a road map to extend the Kyoto Protocol climate pact beyond 2012, breaking two weeks of deadlock at UN talks aimed at curbing global warming.

Ministers also agreed to launch new, open-ended world talks on ways to fight climate change that will include Kyoto outsiders such as the United States and developing nations. Washington had long resisted taking part in the talks."This is a watershed in the fight against climate change," European Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas told reporters of the accords after talks that dragged on till nearly dawn. The conference was attended by 10,000 delegates.

"There is still a harsh road in front of us," Dimas said about the long-term drive to cut emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases released by burning fossil fuels and blamed for heating the atmosphere and oceans.

Environment activists cheered, hugged and some even cried after the delegates passed what they hailed as historic decisions to brake catastrophic changes ranging from desertification to rising sea levels.

"There were many potential points at this meeting when the world could have given up due to the tactics of the Bush administration and others but it did not," said Jennifer Morgan, climate change expert at the WWF conservation group.

The United States, the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, pulled out of Kyoto in 2001, saying a fixation on emissions targets would harm economic growth, a view challenged on Friday in Montreal by former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

WATERED DOWN

 

Washington agreed to join the open-ended dialogue only after Canada and the European Union watered down the text and spelled out that it would not lead to formal negotiations or commitments or the type of emissions caps enshrined in Kyoto.

"The text that was adopted recognizes the diversity of approaches," said U.S. climate negotiator Harlan Watson.

Washington favors voluntary measures and big investments in technology like hydrogen or carbon storage. Other countries are seeking to engage Washington for the long haul, hoping President George W. Bush's successor will be less skeptical of UN-led action on the environment.

The Montreal talks followed a twin track -- one pursuing negotiations to advance Kyoto and the other under the broader UN Framework Convention on Climate Convention, Kyoto's parent treaty ratified by Washington.

"We are delighted," said Margaret Beckett, environment secretary for Britain, head of the rotating European Union presidency.

Stephane Dion, Canada's environment minister and chair of the Montreal talks, was relieved. "Finally, we have achieved what many claimed was unattainable," he told delegates at the final session.

"Facing the worst ecological threat to humanity, you have said: the world is united, and together, step by step, we will win this fight," he said.

The Kyoto decision urges rich nations to decide, as early as possible, new commitments for the period starting in 2013 so that there is a seamless transition when the current phase ends in 2012. Beckett said that this would reassure traders in carbon dioxide markets.

Under Kyoto, about 40 industrialized nations have to cut their emissions by an average of 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2008-2012.

But developing countries, such as China and India, have no targets under Kyoto and say that rich industrial states -- having fueled their economies with coal, oil and gas since the Industrial Revolution -- have to take the lead in cutting emissions.

The agreement on a Kyoto renewal road map gives members seven years to negotiate and ratify accords by the time the first phase ends in 2012. Most countries agree that deeper cuts will be needed to avoid climate chaos in coming decades.

Global warming is widely blamed on a build-up of gases from burning fossil fuels in power plants, cars and factories.

With the talks over, a huge sigh of relief swept through the vast conference hall after a 20-hour session that left delegates exhausted and a little emotional. Some environmentalists said the Montreal talks would have profound consequences for humanity.

"At 6.17 this morning, (Dion) brought down the gavel on a set of agreements that may well save the planet," said Elizabeth May of the Sierra Club of Canada.