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Obama hails Copenhagen deal as 'unprecedented breakthrough'

The climate change pact, which is not legally binding, sets the first emission limits for China and India and new targets for the U.S. Many activists and poor nations criticize the agreement.

December 19, 2009|By Jim Tankersley

Reporting from Copenhagen — Leaders of the world's largest economies agreed late Friday to an accord on steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions, a deal hailed by President Obama as an "unprecedented breakthrough" in international negotiations but denounced by critics as too weak to avert the harshest effects of global warming.

The agreement is not legally binding. But it would set the first emission limits for emerging powers India and China, along with new reduction targets for the United States, which never adopted the commitments of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. It also would provide for an aid fund, to reach $100 billion a year by 2020, to help poor nations adapt to changing climate and employ low-emission fuels.

A provision for international scrutiny of developing nations' emission pledges could prove crucial to Obama's hopes of passing an emission-reducing climate bill next spring in the Senate.

Still, the agreement was vague on key details, including basic components of the aid fund. It would give nations until February to sign on with specific emission commitments, and it would offer no firm deadline to turn what is essentially a framework document into a binding treaty.

Even Obama acknowledged that the reduction targets, to the chagrin of environmental groups, fell well short of what scientists project is necessary to stabilize warming at sub-catastrophic levels.

"This progress did not come easily, and we know that this progress alone is not enough," Obama said in a late-evening news conference announcing the deal.

"We've come a long way, but we have much further to go."

The failure to produce tougher emission cuts, greater financial assistance and a set deadline for follow-up disappointed many environmental activists and infuriated leaders of poor, climate-vulnerable nations like Nicaragua and Cuba, which appeared unlikely to endorse the agreement.

A final plenary session began debating the agreement early today. The goal was to reach enough consensus that the president of the conference, Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen, could declare the document outlining the agreement approved. But that goal was thrown into question as a string of developing nations began to protest what they called an inadequate and nonbinding text.

Oxfam International, which works on climate and poverty issues around the world, called it a "historic cop-out" on its website. A protest group that has rallied in Copenhagen throughout the summit called it "toothless." Kassie Siegel, director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, said, "If this is the best we can do, it is not nearly good enough."

A delegate from the low- lying, South Pacific island nation of Tuvalu -- which was the focus of disruptions during the first days of the summit and hoped to force stronger actions to reduce emissions from rich nations -- told fellow diplomats early this morning that his nation "cannot accept this document."

Hopes that Copenhagen would be the site of a legally binding treaty evaporated long ago. It appeared unlikely this morning that any framework agreement would meet even reduced expectations and emerge from the summit as a product meeting the approval of all 193 members.

Instead, it seemed the deal, which rescued the negotiations from the brink of collapse, would garner support of the largest and fastest-growing emitters, which account for most greenhouse gas pollution.

After two weeks of grinding negotiations and a slow-going morning on Friday, several of those countries reached a breakthrough in the evening. Obama had arrived in town early, exhorted the summit to act instead of talk and dived into negotiations.

By the afternoon, he was frustrated with Chinese officials, who sent low-level ministers to multination bargaining sessions. The Americans had clashed with the Chinese throughout the conference on the issue of transparency in enforcing emission limits.

Obama asked aides to arrange a second meeting of the day with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, with whom he had a comfortable relationship.

At the appointed meeting time, an administration official said, the president found Wen in a room that surprisingly also included the leaders of Brazil, India and South Africa, some of whom the United States had believed to be headed for the airport in defeat.

Together, the leaders found compromise on key issues, chiefly a system to subject developing nations to scrutiny of their pledges to limit emissions as a share of their economies. Under the system, nations would self-report their emission progress every two years, and other countries could ask to examine the data.

In the U.S., several Rust Belt senators, who are considered swing votes on the climate bill, have pushed for such a system to protect U.S. manufacturers from unfair competition from developing nations with no real emission limits -- and thus lower energy costs.

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