Obama and other world leaders agree to scrap a legally binding agreement in Copenhagen

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Publish date: November 15, 2009

Written by: Charles Digges

NEW YORK – President Barack Obama and other world leaders endorsed putting off the intricate task of reaching a climate change agreement at next months UN climate talks in Copenhagen, and will shoot for a less specific “politically binding” agreement that would kick the stickier issues down the road to coming climate talks.

European negotiators said the move did not imply weaker action and some argued that legal technicalities might otherwise distract the talks in Copenhagen and it was better to focus on the core issue of cutting climate-warming emissions. But other observers were less charitable in their assessment and said Copenhagen’s goal should still be to hammer out a binding replacement to the Kyoto Protocol.

It has been suspected for several weeks as talks leading up to Copenhagen have spun their tires that a legally binding agreement was simply too much to ask for at this time.

Eminences whose opinions will have much bearing on the talks, like Lord Nicholas Stern, who in 2006 wrote of the economic catastrophes, had suggested as early as the summer that a year’s moratorium be put on inking a legally binding agreement until Washington got its domestic affairs in order.

But the outright announcement that leaders would not longer be pursuing that hoped for outcome came as something that observers had expected to hear next month.

The agreement to delay something legally ginding in Copenhagen. highlights the tension between national and international priorities especially for the United States. Obama had hoped to deliver on climate legislation, but even though that legislation has passed Senate Committee, Washington has acknowledged that debate on its adoption as law will not come until next year.

As the United States, as one of the world’s top three emitters, will not have signed off on binding legislation capping their own emissions cuts in specific terms, many of the other 192 nations that will be represented in Copenhagen new month are loath to make their own commitments.

It also highlights that talks leading up to the conference have not resolved outstanding issues such as the gulf between rich and poor nations – and even between wealthy nations – in what their expectations of a fair and binding emissions cut commitment would be.

When viewed from another point of view, however, many observers say that it is amazing the United States will even be participating in a substantive manner given the eight years of George W. Bush’s complete disengagement from climate policy.

“It has become obvious in recent months that it will be difficult to achieve a binding international climate agreement in Copenhagen,” said Jonathan Temple, director of Bellona USA.

“While the constructive presence of the United States will be a very positive development, US negotiators know that the final outcome needs to be approved by Congress, “ Temple continued.  

“Nevertheless, we hope that President Obama will come to Copenhagen looking for a bold outcome. He can provide the leadership the negotiations need,” he said.

At a hastily arranged breakfast on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit meeting on Sunday morning, the leaders, including Danish Prime Minister and Copenhagen conference chairman Lars Lokke Rasmussen, agreed that in order to salvage Copenhagen they would have to push a fully binding legal agreement down the road, possibly to a second summit meeting in Mexico City next year.

“There was an assessment by the leaders that it is unrealistic to expect a full internationally, legally binding agreement could be negotiated between now and Copenhagen, which starts in 22 days,” said Michael Froman, the US deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs told reporters.

“I don’t think the negotiations have proceeded in such a way that any of the leaders thought it was likely that we were going to achieve a final agreement in Copenhagen, and yet thought that it was important that Copenhagen be an important step forward, including with operational impact,” he said.

In Singapore, Obama expressed support on Sunday for a proposal from Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen of Denmark, who is also chairing the upcoming talks, to pursue a two-step process at the Copenhagen conference.

Under that plan, negotiations would formulate a nonbinding political agreement calling for reductions in global warming emissions and aid for developing nations to adapt to a changing climate. The group would also promise to work to put together a binding global pact in 2010, complete with firm emissions targets, enforcement mechanisms and specific dollar amounts to aid poorer nations.

“We must in the coming weeks focus on what is possible and not let ourselves be distracted by what is not possible,” Denmark’s Rasmussen told reporters in Singapore, making clear he would prefer to lock in the progress that has been made to date and not postpone action until countries are prepared to accept legally-binding commitments.

Although many read the compromise as a sign that the Copenhagen talks were doomed to produce at best a weak agreement, Yvo de Boer, the United Nations official managing the climate negotiations, told the New York Times the statements out of the Singapore meeting did not limit his ambitions.

“Copenhagen can and must deliver clarity on emission reduction targets and the finance to kick start rapid action,” de Boer said. “I have seen nothing that would change my view on that.”

Not everyone is viewing the hang up in negotiating a binding agreement on the United States, as tempting as déjà vu may be.

Diplomats who spoke with the Times said that Obama was at least using executive authority at home to deal with emissions, in reference to Obama’s decision to let the US Environmental Protection Agency being enforcing domestic green house gas cuts, which gives the administration clout at the upcoming talks.

The world’s other two key emitters, India and and China, on the other hand, have yet to deliver anything but promises, the diplomats noted.

Speaking in Japan on Friday, Obama acknowledged his administration own accomplishments, perhaps in an effort to ward off criticism of the announcement that would be made two days later in Singapore.

“Already, the United States has taken more steps to combat climate change in 10 months than we have in our recent history by embracing the latest science, by investing in new energy, by raising efficiency standards, forging new partnerships and engaging in international climate negotiations,” Obama told reporters.

“In short, America knows there is more work to do,” he said, “but we are meeting our responsibility, and will continue to do so,” he said.

Rajendra Pachauri, the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) gave points to Obama and other leaders for being honest, but didn’t let them off easy for their decision.

Pachauri said the compromise agreed to by the leaders in Singapore was an honest admission of what had become obvious over the past several weeks, as negotiations toward a climate treaty stalled.

But he said the admission was a severe disappointment from President Obama and the other leaders.

“It signifies an abandonment of moral responsibility that a position of leadership on the world stage clearly implies,” Pachauri  told the Times, adding that the scientific consensus on global warming demanded immediate action, not stalling tactics.

“Is this impasse the United States’ fault? Of course. But others are at fault as well,” said Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign in Washington, citing the opposition of polluting industries and the reluctance of emerging economies to commit to binding curbs on emissions. He said the United States has “both the obligation and capability of taking the lead on this issue. The longer we delay, the more extreme the steps that will have to be taken.”

“It is really unfortunate that China and USA seems unable to join internationally enforceable greenhouse gas reduction agreement,” Bellona’s international advisor Svend Soeyland said. 

“Still, it makes little sense to move forward without China and the United States, who between them are responsible for 40 percent of all man-made emissions. The most pressing thing is to have real reductions as soon as possible. A unified post 2012 regime would be a simple an elegant approach, and hopefully the mixed approach that are currently discussed could be ironed into such an agreement within 2010,” he continued.

“Demonstrating credible and fast deployable solutions in Copenhagen next month becomes even more important. Bellona will do its best to convince the negotiators that solutions are available and that electorates worldwide are getting impatient,” Soeyland said.