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Global Climate Talks Heat Up

Nations remain divided on details of a new global pact.

The return of the U.S. as an active participant has invigorated global negotiations on combating climate change, but just months ahead of the talks’ supposed deadline, governments remain far apart on targets for reducing carbon emissions — and on who should pay the enormous tab.

The United Nations Climate Change Conference will gather environment ministers from more than 190 nations in Copenhagen in December in an effort to agree on a successor plan to the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 accord that called for reducing global carbon emissions to 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.

Kyoto has been honored more in the breach than in the observance. Although the Clinton administration signed it, the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the pact, and the Bush administration effectively discarded it. Developing nations, most significantly China, which last year surpassed the U.S. as the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, aren’t covered by the agreement.

A hardening scientific consensus about the risks of climate change has given an impetus to the Kyoto follow-up negotiations. The scientists at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warn that unless urgent action is taken to halt and reverse the buildup of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, average world temperatures will rise by between 1.8 and 4.0 degrees Celsius (3.2 to 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century, causing species extinctions, rising sea levels and dramatic changes in rainfall and storm patterns.

President Barack Obama, who advocates a U.S. cap-and-trade system to contain carbon emissions, has vowed to push for a deal at Copenhagen. U.S. negotiators have so far offered to reduce the country’s emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 — in effect a 15 percent cut from current levels — and then slash them by 80 percent by 2050.

The European Union, among the most enthusiastic backers of Kyoto, is almost on track to achieve its target of an 8 percent decrease by 2012. The bloc has already agreed internally to bring emissions to 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and has offered in the UN talks to raise that target to 30 percent.

China and India blame the developed West for causing the climate problem and insist that those nations should lead the way in cutting greenhouse gases — and foot the bill for efforts by developing countries. China, which aims to achieve GDP growth of 8 percent this year and relies mostly on carbon-intensive coal for its energy, has refused to offer any emissions reduction targets in the global talks.

Yvo de Boer, the chief UN official at the talks, acknowledges that ministers are unlikely to reach a detailed agreement in December. Still, he hopes for a framework deal that includes tough emissions-reduction targets for developed countries, binding commitments by major developing nations to take action on emissions and sources of long-term financing to promote cleaner technologies.

Michael Zammit Cutajar, the Maltese diplomat chairing the negotiations, is optimistic about the Copenhagen talks despite a lack of progress in preparatory meetings in Bonn last month. "This is like the evolutionary process in reverse," he notes. "The Big Bang comes at the end. We hope it is going to be a very big bang."

See related article, " Is Climate Change The Next New Thing In Investing? ".

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