San Francisco Chronicle - 3 Dec 08

Prof. Robert B. Laughlin
Department of Physics
Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305
(Copied 21 Jan 09)

Deadline for Global Climate Treaty in Question

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

(12-03) 01:20 PST POZNAN, Poland (AP) --

Negotiators from 190 countries agreed a year ago to complete a new global warming treaty by the end of 2009 that would force governments to reduce carbon emissions.

That deadline now appears to be slipping away.

"It was too optimistic to begin with," said Eileen Claussen, the president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, whose organization closely monitors the U.S. Congress on climate issues.

Delegates from nearly all the world's nations have been meeting since Monday in the Polish city of Poznan to assess progress toward the new treaty, but many like Claussen doubt one can be finalized by the next climate meeting in December 2009 in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The new treaty is meant to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012 and has required that 37 countries slash emissions of heat-trapping gases by an average 5 percent from 1990 levels.

Yvo de Boer, the U.N.'s top climate official, has said it is critical to have a new framework by next year, though he doubted a full text could be reached by then.

"Do we have to agree on every last comma in every last rule on every last aspect of a Copenhagen agreement? Or do we need to have a political understanding on the key elements?" he told reporters on the eve of the two-week Poznan conference.

"The critical issue for me is that we work toward a robust political agreement in Copenhagen that is ratifiable, that is sufficiently clear for countries to say, 'yes, this is a sound basis on which we commit to making serious emissions reductions.'"

The details can be filled in later, he said.

That raises the question, is there such a thing as a ratifiable agreement of principle?

The U.S. Congress, for one, would not ratify anything less than the real deal, says Alden Meyer, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental group based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

"They won't buy a pig in a poke," he said.

Relaxing the December 2009 deadline would take pressure off negotiators and could fatally set back the process, Meyer said.

"If you don't get a decision in Copenhagen, then you lose the political momentum that we've built up with the world expecting a deal there - and then what becomes the next deadline? Does that mean we slip a year, we slip two years?"

Claussen, in a telephone interview from Washington, said the new administration of President-elect Barack Obama cannot finish domestic legislation in time to bring hard U.S. commitments to the table in Copenhagen "despite what I believe will be heroic efforts."

"The U.S. won't be in a position to negotiate with specific targets and timetables in 2009," she said. Nor would it be ready to negotiate the commitments it expects from other countries, especially rapidly developing nations such as China.

The American legislative process is at the center of a chicken-and-egg debate.

The U.S. cannot sign an international agreement unless Congress approves the terms, argues Claussen. In 1997, the Senate voted 95-0 against the key elements included in the Kyoto Protocol negotiated five months later. Though the administration of former President Bill Clinton helped fashion the protocol, the pact never came back for another vote.

Jennifer Haverkamp, senior council for the New York-based nongovernment Environmental Defense, said it could work to U.S. delegates' advantage to have no legislation tying their hands in Copenhagen.

She said citing Kyoto as a precedent was invalid, since "there was inadequate consultation with Congress" during the negotiations, which would not happen this time.

Kert Davies, the Washington-based research director of the global environmental group Greenpeace, said his organization thought an agreement was achievable - and necessary.

"We don't have any more years to wait," he said. The U.S. delegation could come to Denmark with something less than a final climate law, "as long as it is a clear message with a range of emissions reductions" that Washington was prepared to accept.

Asked if he thought a full agreement would emerge from Copenhagen, chief U.S. delegate in Poznan, Harlan Watson, said, "That's what we agreed to" a year ago. "It won't be easy."