The New York Times, Sept. 20, 2009
UNITED NATIONS — Economists point to powerhouse countries like India to illustrate the hurdles facing some 100 world leaders due to gather in New York this Tuesday for the highest level summit meeting on climate change ever convened.
The Indian government has announced a major commitment to solar power as a renewable means of bringing electricity to more than 400 million people now living without it. Yet the government was pilloried at home last summer for accepting the international goal of preventing a global temperature rise of more than 2 degrees Centigrade (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by limiting emissions. Opposition parties accused it of selling out the country’s future development.
While virtually all of the largest developed and developing nations have made domestic commitments toward creating more efficient, renewable sources of energy to cut emissions, none want to take the lead in fighting for significant international emissions reduction targets, lest they be accused at home of selling out future jobs and economic growth.
The negotiations for a new climate change agreement to be signed in Copenhagen in December are badly stalled. With the agreement running more than 200 pages — including what negotiators estimate are a couple of thousand brackets denoting points of differences — diplomats and negotiators fear that the document is too unwieldy to garner a consensus in the coming months.
In convening the meeting, the United Nations is hoping that collectively the leaders can summon the will to overcome narrow national interests and give the negotiators the marching orders needed to cut at least the outline of a deal.
“I have been urging them to speak and to act as global leaders; just go beyond their national boundaries,” Ban Ki-Moon, the United Nations secretary general, said Thursday.
On Tuesday, the leaders, including the heads of state or government of most economic powers, are to engage in a series of round-table discussions on outstanding climate change issues that will be less like negotiations than a series of college seminars designed to forge political momentum.
“They won’t do it one by one,” said Robert Orr, the United Nations assistant secretary general for policy planning. “Politically, they all have to jump together, and this is the essence of this summit. We will see if any governments are ready to say, ‘I am stepping through the door now; are you going to come with me?’ That would be a huge break.”
Senior organizers said they had never been involved in such a high-level summit meeting where the outcome was not predetermined. Fundamentally, although limiting the temperature rise to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit is an accepted goal, there is no consensus on how to get there.
The industrialized nations have not agreed on midterm targets. They have made pledges of roughly half the target set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a 25 percent to 40 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2020.
Developing countries have agreed on the need to mitigate their emissions but have rejected any mandatory limit, and they demand financial and technical support in exchange.
The issue of aid for the poorest countries to adapt to the impact of climate change has been shunted aside. Finally, there is no agreement on what institutions would verify that targets are being met and supervise the finances.
“The mood in the negotiations has been that I should do as little as possible as late as possible and let the other person go first,” said Kim Carstensen, the director of the Global Climate Initiative of the World Wildlife Fund.
In recent weeks, sharp divisions have emerged between the United States and the European Union. The Europeans announced that they would donate $2 billion to $15 billion a year for the next decade to help less developed nations adapt to climate change. The Obama administration has not offered anything close.
The Europeans also want binding, near-term targets for developed nations, a legacy of the last significant global climate accord, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which the Bush administration rejected because it did not set limits on emissions from China and other major developing nations. The European target is a 20 percent reduction of 1990 levels by 2020, or 30 percent if everyone agrees.
The American position is that such targets be voluntary but verifiable and equally distributed. In the United States, a House bill comes close to that target, but the Senate is expected to dilute it.
But the chances of a final bill’s clearing Congress by December are increasingly unlikely, so experts are eagerly waiting to hear what President Obama, who made climate change a key issue in his administration, proposes in his speech on Tuesday.
A speech by President Hu Jintao of China is also widely anticipated, with experts hoping he will announce a significant commitment to renewable energy and emissions reductions in China’s next five-year plan. Mr. Hu is the first Chinese president ever to attend the annual United Nations General Assembly, where leaders will convene on Wednesday.
Between them, the United States and China account for about 40 percent of world emissions, split almost evenly, so if the two reach a consensus it will also provide significant impetus for a global agreement.
The United States also suffers from the “after you” syndrome, with some Congressional leaders demanding that China agree to reductions before the United States agrees to an overall framework, a formula that experts warn will kill progress.
“We don’t want to get hung up on trying to say that the U.S. and China will reduce the same percentage or the same amount,” said Timothy E. Wirth, the president of the United Nations Foundation and a former Colorado senator who has long been involved in climate negotiations. “Those numbers can drag us right down.”
Blocs of smaller, poorer states have their own agendas. The island states of the Pacific and the Caribbean will be pushing for an even lower temperature ceiling — 1.5 degrees Celsius — because they fear that the rising seas caused by even a 2-degree rise would drown or severely damage them. The Africans are threatening to walk out of the negotiations if they are not promised $300 billion in aid.
New Zealand objects to the fact that the negotiations have basically ignored agriculture, which accounts for 13 percent to 14 percent of greenhouse gases. Developing nations fear that even the mention of agricultural limits will deepen their severe problems in feeding their populations.
Such issues, while parochial, may be no less important in building an agreement that works across the world’s political borders.
“The instinct is a kind of nationalist response that can get it exactly backwards,” said Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. “We should be viewing this as global problem solving, not as global negotiation.”