Poznan climate talk preview shows world’s hopes lie with Obama to break deadlocks and forge ahead in recession

Publish date: November 29, 2008

Written by: Charles Digges

Nations around the world are hoping the United States is set to take a leading role in climate talks beginning in Poland on Monday as President-elect Barack Obama prepares to take office, but fears are high that the global economic downturn will test the world’s resolve to fight global warming.

The December 1st-12th meeting of 8,000 delegates in Poznan, Poland, will review progress in a two-year push to work out a sweeping new UN climate treaty by the end of 2009, which will be designed to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. Among those in Poznan will be Bellona President Frederic Hauge and other Bellona staff who will hold a series of lectures on the sidelines of the talks. The lecture programme and Bellona’s expectations of the Poznan conference can be found here.

Even though Obama will not be in attendance in Poznan, international eyes will be on his reactions to the talks in what is projected to be the end of the US freeze-out of mounting international evidence that a worldwide accord is needed to fight climate change.

In a videotaped message to a climate conference in California last week, attended by many delegates who will be in Poland next week, Obama said: "Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all. Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response. The stakes are too high. The consequences, too serious."

Nations need to ante up
So far, many countries have promised to fight global warming despite fears of deep recession, but few have come up with deep cuts in emissions that the UN Climate Panel says are needed to avoid the worst of heat waves, droughts and rising seas.

"I’d expect the economic crisis to have an effect (on resolve), and lower oil prices will mean less of an incentive to invest in renewables," Yvo de Boer, head of the UN Climate Change Secretariat, said of the outlook for Poznan, according to Reuters. “

"The minute the financial crisis struck, industries said ‘this makes it difficult to take on expensive targets’," he said.

Among canceled investments, FPL Group, the largest US wind power operator, has slashed planned 2009 spending by 25 percent to $5.3 billion.

Shares in China’s Suntech Power Holdings, the world’s largest solar module maker, fell to an all-time low last week, down more than 90 percent in 2009, the Dow Jones financial newswire reported.

The economic downturn means countries "are going to have all kinds of excuses to avoid making progress. So (Poznan) will be a test," said Angela Anderson, director of the Pew Environment Group’s global warming campaign.

Poznan’s eyes on Obama…
For many nations, Obama’s election is reason for optimism as many US allies accuse President George W Bush of doing too little to diversify USenergy supplies away from fossil fuels. China and the United States are the world’s top greenhouse gas emitters.

"There are positive influences – Obama has got elected and he has said that the current economic crisis is not going to impair his resolve to tackle the problem of climate change," Rajendra Pachauri, head of the UN Climate Panel, told Reuters.

Obama said while on the campaign trail, and confirmed in his videotaped message to the California conference, that he will set a goal of reducing US emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, and by 80 per cent by 2050, using a cap-and-trade system. He said he will also set up a 10-year, $150 billion federal investment programme for renewable energy development.

Pachauri said Obama might be able to come up with even more. The UN panel says rich nations need to cut by 25-40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 to keep temperatures below what some nations see as a dangerous two-degree Celsius  93.6 Fahrenheit) rise.

"Maybe this is just the beginning of what we expect from him," Pachauri told Reuters. Pachauri’s panel said it would cost less than 0.12 percent of global gross domestic product every year until 2030 to avert the worst results of climate change.

But even if Obama’s election has put a spring in the step of international climate negotiators, many experts are nonetheless wondering whether he will realise his ambitious climate goals in a time of deepening global recession.

Other countries, which last year embraced tackling climate change, are having second thoughts as they confront sluggish economies, rising budget deficits, and the expenses of weaning themselves off fossil fuelds.

Another wrench in the works is that when the Poznan talks reach a climax, European Union leaders are scheduled to meet in Brussels to try to resolve objections by Poland and Italy about the cost of reaching the EU’s target of a 20-percent cut in emissions by 2020 over 1990 levels.

But Obama has gone on record rejecting the view that hard economic times are an excuse to foot-drag against climate change, saying his plan would create jobs in the renewable energy and conservation sectors and reduce dependence on oil imports – a point of view that the Bellona Foundation shares.

“My presidency will mark a new chapter in America’s leadership on climate change that will strengthen our security and create millions of new jobs in the process,” Obama said in his videotaped message last week.

…and Obama’s eyes on Poznan
"It’s a very exciting time,” said Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, who ran against Bush for the US presidency in 2004, and who Obama has asked to attend the Poznan conference as an observer.

As Obama is not yet president, he has said he and members of his transition team will sit out the Poznan conference out of deference to Bush – despite numerous pleas from Europe that he attend.

 “It’s a moment we have been waiting for, many of us, for some period of time; we intend to pick up the baton and really run with it," said Kerry in a teleconference with reporters.

"After eight years of obstruction and delay and denial, the US is going to rejoin the world community in tackling this global challenge."

Kerry said the US message will be, "that America is back, we are back in a position of participation, of respecting views and having real discussions and trying to find the best framework for all of us."

Poznan no forum for negotiations

Under Bush, the United States turned it’s back on signing the Kyoto Protocol – a head-in-the sand denial that has left other nations to battle out the terms of a coherent international policy for reducing carbon emissions.

Both Kerry and de Boer have been careful to state that the conference in Poznan will not be focused on negotiating a new climate deal – which will be the work of the Copenhagen UN Framework Convention in 2009 – but would focus on setting a timetable leading up to Copenhagen.

"This is not a negotiation session," said Kerry. "This is a negotiation to set up a glide path going into Copenhagen."

A mountain of proposals sits on the table for cutting greenhouse gases, transferring nations to clean technology and boosting aid for poor countries who will have trouble making the transition, but who will be most impacted by climate change.

The conference’s task is to whittle this sprawl of proposals into a workable blueprint for Copenhagen.

"We need a step-change in the process," de told Agency France Presse.

"It’s been very much general orientation and countries coming with ideas so far, and they really need to make the transition in Poznan to a full negotiating mode."

If nations fail to do that, one European diplomat close to the negotiations told Bellona Web, the Copenhagen meeting will be severely hobbled.

"Poznan is an intermediate conference between Bali (of 2007) and Copenhagen, but not without stake,” said the diplomat. “If we stumble this year, there’s no chance (of success) next year."

Kyoto gutted by Bush
Bush argued the United States out of ratifying the Kyoto Protocol by saying that the accord was too expensive for the oil-dependent US economy as well as unfair, as its binding emissions curbs apply only to rich countries, not developing ones.

European diplomats, who have been at the centre of negotiations, have told Bellona Web in interviews that outlining a successor to Kyoto has been enormously complicated by trying to accommodate a Bush America.

But there is also grudging acknowledgment of Bush’s point that China and India are already big carbon emitters and will be the problem of tomorrow. These and other developing countries remain implacably opposed to targeted emissions caps, said diplomats.

Kerry is scheduled to take over as the chairman of the US Senate’s foreign relations committee in January, putting him in a pivotal role to shore up US support behind a successor to Kyoto.

"It’s going to be one of the top priorities of the committee," Kerry said in his teleconference. "I know this playing field and I know this issue."

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