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News 30 Sep 07
Watershed week gives strong push in climate crisis
by Richard Ingham
A key week in the chronicle of climate change has delivered a powerful kick for tackling the environmental crisis, even if many fundamental problems and deep-rooted skepticism remain.
Diplomats gave an upbeat assessment of the UN climate summit in New York and a two-day meeting in Washington of the world's biggest greenhouse-gas polluters.
"It's been a very important week," said a European delegate. "Climate change has now arrived on the agendas of head of state and government, and we've also seen movement on the American side.
"The American president has acknowledged there is a problem, he says the United States wants to do something about it and is willing to work within the UN."
The New York meeting, attended by 150 nations, of which more than 80 were represented by head of state or government, was the seniormost UN gathering on climate change. It came in the runup to a crucial UN conference in Bali, Indonesia from December 3-14, tasked with crafting a two-year road map for agreeing cuts in carbon emissions from 2012, when pledges under the Kyoto Protocol run out.
Scientists this year warned of the need for massive, early curbs to avoid climate damage that, by 2050, could lead to widespread hunger, flooding and homelessness.
Speaker after speaker in New York pounded out the need for urgency. Some demanded the world halve its greenhouse-gas emissions by the middle of the century to limit the worst damage.
And there was unanimity for the UN to have primacy in tackling the problem. That included the United States, the world's top polluter, which has been isolated on climate change ever since it abandoned Kyoto in 2001.
"This event has sent a powerful political signal to the world, and to the Bali conference, that there is the will and the determination at the highest level, to break with the past and act decisively," said UN chief Ban Ki-moon.
In Washington, George W. Bush, in the strongest-yet commitment on climate change in his presidency, spelt out a vision of voluntary action, technological innovation and international cooperation.
In 2001, when breaking with Kyoto, Bush even questioned the scientific consensus on global warming. But on Friday, at a forum of 16 major emitters that he proposed in May, the former Texas oilman placed climate change alongside energy security as "two of the great challenges of our time."
He surprised many by proposing a summit next year that would set long-term goals for emissions curbs and by suggesting a fund to help finance clean energy projects in the developing world.
Defenders of Kyoto praised Bush for a change in tone that some privately found unthinkable compared with even a few months ago. "We see a re-engagement by the US in the international negotiation process," said Portuguese Deputy Environment Minister Humberto Rosa, representing the EU.
Despite this, questions of substance still beset the climate debate: Among them:
-- BALI POKER: To make the breakthrough everyone craves, Bali has to get the major players to show one or two of the big cards in their hand. Major developing countries insist that industrialized parties to Kyoto must first promise how far they intend to curb their own emissions post-2012. But the rich club's response is still fuzzy, describing cuts of 25-40 percent by 2020 over 1990 levels as "useful initial parameters." Another problem for Bali and beyond: how to accommodate the United States, the world's biggest polluter, which remains in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) but is outside the Kyoto format favored by almost everyone else.
-- NUCLEAR STANDOFF: Nuclear power has shot up the climate agenda. Bush called for developing nations to obtain "secure, cost-effective and proliferation-resistant" nuclear power to help meet their burgeoning energy needs without adding to greenhouse-gas emissions. For green countries in Europe, this kind of thinking is unworkable and dangerous.
-- CARBON CONUNDRUM: The Washington initiative launched a series of meetings next year on how to get businesses more involved in the carbon cleanup and for encouraging energy-efficient, less-polluting technology. But getting big corporations and smart entrepreneurs enrolled will only work if they have an incentive to do so -- which means setting a durably high price for CO2 pollution.
For Kyoto countries, the tool for doing this has to be legally-binding curbs, not the voluntary approach favored by Bush. Setting a carbon price "is the most burning issue," said senior European Commission official Mogens Peter Carl.
Another potential minefield is Bush's proposed "international clean technology fund." While details on this are still hazy, experts saw a risk this fund could undercut the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), another part of Kyoto's core.
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