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Economics, politics cloud future of world emission talks

Smoke billows from chimneys at an industrial district near Tokyo February 28, 2011.

Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

The United States has little credibility at the negotiating table; China is showing signs of "buyer's remorse" for commitments already made, and the European Union is desperately trying to save the Kyoto Protocol from a premature death.

Negotiators concluded two weeks of climate talks in Bonn on Friday, providing a sobering view of the political roadblocks on the way to Durban, South Africa, where ministers will meet in December.

At the United Nations conference in Cancun last December, countries made sweeping commitments to address climate change but papered over fundamental differences on how to achieve them.

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It was left to the coming UN climate conference in December to determine what global system will be in place when commitments under the Kyoto Protocol expire at the end of 2012.

With the world economy still reeling from financial and debt crises, there is a fading hope that countries will accept a pact that would see greenhouse gas emissions peak by 2015 and then begin to drop. And more important, that they will follow through with their own promised emission reductions.

The UN's chief climate negotiator acknowledged Friday that economic and political challenges are competing with the scientific urgency of reducing emissions.

"Both are compelling realities," Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, said at the conclusion of the session.

For its part, Canada has formally ruled out accepting new emission-reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol, adding to a sense of crisis as more than 190 countries attempt to build consensus for a new global climate agreement. It has promised to reduce emissions by 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020, which matches the U.S. commitment provided by President Barack Obama.

In a presentation during the Bonn conference, Canadian negotiator Michael Keenan said the Harper government has a plan to meet its target and will soon be introducing regulations to govern emissions in the oil industry, following similar efforts in the electricity and transportation sectors.

However, his presentation failed to provide a breakdown of how the various actions by Ottawa and the provinces will achieve the emission reductions over the next 10 tears that are required to meet the target. And delegates questioned whether Canada could meet its goals while allowing the dramatic expansion of the oil sands projects, which represent the fastest growing source of emissions in the country.

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ELEPHANTS IN THE ROOM

The United States insists that any concessions by developed countries must be matched by agreement from China and other emerging countries that their climate plans can be monitored and verified.

However, the Americans have little negotiating clout, given the skepticism over Mr. Obama's ability to deliver a comprehensive plan to meet the 2020 target. Also, the U.S. Senate is almost certainly not going to ratify a climate change treaty for the foreseeable future.

China and other rapidly industrializing countries are particularly resisting any idea that their national climate plans be reviewed by outsiders, as suggested in the Cancun accord.

There is clearly a sense of "buyer's remorse" from the major emerging countries, said Canada's chief negotiator Guy Saint-Jacques in an interview from Bonn. He said they have reassessed the Cancun results and have decided it favoured developed countries.

THE FUTURE OF KYOTO

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Ms. Figueres did hold out hope that, at Durban, global governments will be able to agree on fundamental questions about the future of the Kyoto Protocol.

With its explicit refusal to make new commitments, Canada has now joined Russia and Japan as Kyoto signatories who insist the world needs a new treaty that requires binding commitments - not voluntary targets - from countries such as China, India and Brazil.

The European Union is indicating that it may carry on with a second Kyoto commitment period in the absence of the three rejectors, but it is a highly conditional offer.

Emerging countries like China and India are insistent that Kyoto principles remain intact because the treaty recognizes the historical responsibility of the developed world for the current buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Given the political stakes, the fate of Kyoto could hijack the entire Durban conference.

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About the Author
Global Energy Reporter

Shawn McCarthy is an Ottawa-based, national business correspondent for The Globe and Mail, covering a global energy beat. He writes on various aspects of the international energy industry, from oil and gas production and refining, to the development of new technologies, to the business implications of climate-change regulations. More

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