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Enforcement of nations' reduction promises is an obstacle at climate talks

The monitoring dispute in Copenhagen pits wealthy Western nations against emerging powers China and India, and it carries profound environmental and economic implications.

December 11, 2009|By Jim Tankersley
  • A member of China's delegation to the global warming negotiations in Copenhagen consults with an official.
A member of China's delegation to the global warming negotiations… (Attila Kisbenedek / AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from Copenhagen — Negotiations between representatives of the world's largest economies appeared stalled Thursday on a particularly touchy aspect of attacking global warming: how to make sure countries actually do what they pledge to do to combat climate change.

The challenge of ensuring that promises come true looms even larger than such issues as reducing greenhouse gas emissions and providing financial aid for developing countries, diplomats and environmentalists said.

"Among the major emitters, this seems to be the biggest issue," said Melinda Kimble, a former U.S. climate negotiator who is a senior vice president at the United Nations Foundation and closely engaged in the talks.

The roadblock became apparent four days into the two weeks of climate talks, as key negotiators were approaching consensus on nation-by-nation reductions in the emissions that scientists say cause global warming. They have made progress on how much aid wealthy nations will supply over the short term to help developing countries adopt low-emitting sources of energy, with the figure likely to average about $10 billion a year.

The monitoring dispute pits wealthy Western nations against emerging powers China and India, and it carries profound environmental and economic implications.

The United States and Europe are pushing for the agreement to include language making it clear that fast-growing developing nations have promised to reduce their emissions as a share of those nations' economies. The West also wants to include some form of international monitoring of emissions and verification of the reductions.

Todd Stern, the U.S. special climate envoy, told reporters this week that international monitoring is important because the vast majority of future harmful emissions will come from developing countries.

"It is essential that they step forward and set forth the actions that they are prepared to take, make clear that they stand behind those actions and make the implementation of those actions transparent in the way that we see in many arenas all over the world," Stern said.

He went on to list global organizations to whose scrutiny developed and developing nations already submit, including the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization.

China and India are resisting any effort to impose binding emissions reductions, and they fear monitoring would impinge on national sovereignty. Developed countries, viewed as largely responsible for the world's existing problems with harmful gases, were subject to binding reductions and to outside monitoring under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, but developing countries were not.

At the talks this week, Chinese officials said they would subject their reductions to rigorous internal accounting but would not accept outside scrutiny.

Reduction pledges need some force, analysts say, if nations hope to meet the Copenhagen delegates' goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. Europe has already launched a trading system designed to reward companies that invest in reducing emissions and penalize those that continue to rely on fossil fuel.

For those carbon markets to function, analysts say, investors need certainty that emission-reduction efforts are real.

"The only force on the planet that can generate the investment in clean energy [to sufficiently reduce emissions] is the market," said Peter Goldmark, who directs the climate and air program for the Environmental Defense Fund. "And you're not going to have a market without transparency."

The issue has boiled to the top of behind-the-scenes negotiations that ultimately will dictate the fate of any new climate agreement. In public, it has been obscured by developing nations' protests over what they call a lack of inclusion in the negotiating process and a lack of ambition on the part of wealthy nations.

Sometimes the outrage does not appear to match the reality. For example, developing nations protested this week over a draft agreement that was leaked to environmentalists and reporters Tuesday.

But many developing nations, including China and India in fact had a hand in drafting the "Danish text," a person with deep knowledge of the negotiations said Thursday. Representatives of those nations knew about the agreement's most controversial provisions, including commitments for greenhouse gas reductions by developing countries and a reduced role for the United Nations in climate policy, well before the summit began, the source said.

Many environmentalists and delegates said they hope the public clash over commitments and transparency will be resolved. There are dozens of ways to give reduction pledges force without calling them "binding," those advocates say, and the key to an agreement will be finding language that will allow both sides to declare victory.

"There are certainly ways to establish that all nations are meeting their commitments while respecting sovereignty as well," said Alex Wang, a senior attorney based in China for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Goldmark, of the Environmental Defense Fund, said it's possible that countries could punt on some issues during the Copenhagen gathering but agree to resolve them before finalizing a legal treaty.

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