If the devil is in the details, climate change negotiators are about to enter purgatory.
Yesterday, some 2,000 delegates from 162 countries and dozens of specialist agencies opened a two-week conference, the first to get into the nuts and bolts of a new global warming agreement meant to take effect after 2012.
The meeting builds on a landmark accord reached in December in Bali, Indonesia, which, for the first time, held out the promise that the US, China and India would join a coordinated effort to control carbon emissions blamed for the unnatural heating of the Earth.
The Bali conference agreed to conclude a new climate change treaty by December next year. Another conference four months later in Bangkok adopted a negotiating timetable.
In Bonn, “we have to roll our sleeves up and get down to work,” the UN’s top climate change official, Yvo de Boer, said in an interview on Sunday.
Scientists say the world’s carbon emissions must peak within the next 10 to 15 years and then fall by half by mid-century to avoid potentially catastrophic changes in weather patterns, a rise in sea levels that would threaten coastal cities and the mass extinction of plants and animals.
The new climate change pact will succeed the first phase of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which requires 37 industrialized countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions an average of 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.
The US is the only industrialized country not to have ratified Kyoto. Negotiators hope Washington’s consent to the Bali “action plan” marked the end of its hostility toward working with other countries to contain global warming.
“Their attitude, their activity, has changed very much in the recent year. It’s really a big change,” said Andrej Kranjc of Slovenia, the head of the EU delegation.
Still, the administration of US President George W. Bush has rejected specific and mandatory targets to reduce emissions.
And countries like India and China question why they should accept limits on their development without commitments from the US — the world’s largest per-capita polluter by far.
Delegates say such major decisions must wait for the new US administration in January.
“It’s unlikely we are going to make a lot of progress this year because we need strong signals from the US and that’s not going to happen until the election,” said Ian Fry, the delegate from the tiny Pacific nation of Tuvalu.
But time is pressing.
The basic outline of the post-Kyoto agreement should be ready by next summer to prepare for the critical December conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, where the new pact should be adopted, de Boer said.
That allows negotiators just six months after the next US.
president takes office to negotiate a complex, multifaceted and hugely expensive treaty.
“Everyone refers to the US as the elephant in the room,” said Angela Anderson, director of the Global Warming Campaign for the Pew Environment Group. She said the presidential candidates already should be formulating policies and making them part of their campaigns.
“The new administration will have a challenge, but perhaps a welcome challenge. They can mend the US reputation abroad by engaging constructively in the climate talks,” she said.
Delegates in Bonn will begin work on how to help developing countries adapt to anticipated changes in their climate, on transferring new technologies to help them avoid hefty carbon emissions as they expand their economies and on how to raise the trillions of dollars required over the next decades to curb climate change.
Each objective faces a multitude of obstacles.
Governments cannot commit to transferring technologies that belong to private companies, which are protected by intellectual property rights, for example. Small countries need satellite monitoring, especially of deforestation, which they cannot afford without help. The costs of installing carbon-storage facilities on power stations, once it becomes technically feasible, will be out of reach to all but the richest.
No one expects answers by the end of the Bonn conference. But de Boer said he hoped the meeting would “take things to the next level,” with the discussions crystalizing ideas.
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