Major economies clear obstacle at climate talks
UN talks on climate change fought with exhaustion and shredded nerves on Sunday as the world's big economies overcame a major hurdle blocking a proposed pact for curbing greenhouse gases.
As the conference entered its second day of extra time, the developing giants, backed by the United States, wrangled with the European Union (EU) and its allies over a “roadmap” that by 2015 would set down a new path for tackling global warming.
South Africa’s Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane begged countries to do everything to save the proposal, describing it as “a very, very precious and historic moment”.
After more than 13 and a half days of wrangling, the complex deal hit a roadblock over just two words — “legal outcome”.
The EU criticised this as a fudge that failed to lock major carbon emitters into a legally binding agreement that it argued was the true way to tackle the greenhouse-gas threat.
It called for terms with a tougher legal status — “a protocol or another legal instrument”.
Eventually, a draft format substituting the two contested words with “an agreed outcome of legal force” appeared to bridge the gap.
“This is a good and strong result,” said EU Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard.
However, the compromise awaited formal approval later in decisions in a plenary session, where disputes often flare.
The goal of the accord is to close a loophole in multilateral efforts to combat climate change.
At present, the only legally-binding emissions treaty is the Kyoto Protocol, but its targeted curbs apply only to rich countries.
Many of these economies are rushing for the exits, saying they will not renew their vows when the first round of commitments expires at the end of 2012. They say new promises would make no sense when far bigger carbon polluters have no legal constraints.
Seeking to win the support of developing countries for which Kyoto has iconic value, the EU declared it would, alone if need be, sign on for new pledges in exchange for the 2015 pact, which for the first time would set all countries under one roof.
It was supported by more than 80 countries, including the world’s poorest nations and small island states, which are the most vulnerable to the peril of rising seas, droughts and storms driven by these heat-trapping emissions.
But the first open discussion of a draft compromise put forward by South Africa, the conference host, ran into crossfire.
After the EU objected to the “legal outcome” text, China and India angrily said that deleting the two words would betray a core principle of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCCC).
Under the 1992 treaty that founded the forum, parties must uphold the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”.
In other words: poor countries should not be asked to share a burden equally with rich economies that were first to burn the coal, gas and coal that propelled them to prosperity and are driving the warming that scientists say is perceptible today.
In a furious attack on the European demand, Indian Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan said that by deleting the two words, this closed the door to enshrining the burden-sharing principles in the new pact.
But after further talks, she approved the compromise formula.
“We have shown our flexibility and we have agreed to this — the words that you have just mentioned — and we agree to adopt this,” she said to applause.
Reflecting some of confrontational mood at the talks, China’s chief delegate, Xie Zhenhua, gesticulating furiously, had supported the Indian position.
He accused developed countries — which he did not name — of hypocrisy in heaping demands on poorer countries.
“We are doing things that you are not doing. What qualifies you to say these things?” he asked. “We are taking actions — we want to see your actions.”
Memories in the UN climate process remain deeply scarred by the 2009 Copenhagen Summit, where finger-pointing and nit-picking almost led to a fiasco.