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Pressure on major emitters as climate talks go to the wire

Published on 09/12/2011

A growing coalition of countries demanding a new pact on greenhouse gases heaped pressure on China, the United States and India to follow suit on the final day of the UN climate talks Friday.

With only hours left before the scheduled end of the 12-day marathon and scant signs of any progress, Europe said it had assembled an alliance gathering the vast majority of the world’s nations.

They supported a “roadmap” leading to an accord, to be negotiated by 2015, that for the first time would bind all nations to legal commitments to tackle greenhouse gases, it said.

The unprecedented alignment fractured unity in the developing bloc and split the four countries of the so-called BASIC group, comprising Brazil, South Africa, India and China.

“Today agreement is within reach,” said European Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard.

She cautioned, however: “Although there are these encouraging signs, we are definitely not there yet and time in Durban is now really short.”

Those gathered around the EU flag comprised least developed countries, the African bloc, small island states and Brazil and South Africa, said Hedegaard.

Without naming names, Hedegaard said this left China and the United States, which are the world’s two biggest emitters, as well as India to declare their hand.

“The success or failure of Durban depends on the small number of countries who have not yet committed to the roadmap and the meaningful content that it of course must have. We need to get them onboard today. We do not have too many hours left — the world is waiting for them.”

Negotiations are officially scheduled to wind up late Friday but it is almost a tradition in meetings of the 194-nation UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) for them to overrun.

The roadmap scheme aims at filling a void at a time when scientists are urging ever more radical action to curb carbon emissions driving the planet to worsening food, drought, rising seas and storms.

The goal is to bridge the gap between the end of 2012 — when the first round of legal-binding curbs commitments under the Kyoto Protocol expire — and 2020, the date for which countries have made voluntary pledges on carbon reductions.

Those commitments, scientists say, fall far short of what is needed to prevent the planet from heating up by more than 2.0 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) beyond pre-industrial levels.

But when the new deal would be sealed, when it would go into effect, and what it’s legal nature might be are still up in the air, negotiators say.

Europe has set a 2015 target for wrapping up a new pact. AOSIS and other vulnerable nations already suffering climate impacts initially said this was not soon enough, but have since joined forces with the EU.

Beijing has said it is not opposed to taking on legally binding commitments after 2020, but tied that offer to a long list of conditions.

“China has been blowing hot and cold. If it throws its weight behind the EU position it would put pressure on the US to follow suit,” said Thomas Spencer, a climate policy analyst from the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations in Paris.

US negotiators, acknowledging a difficult domestic political context, have shied away from signing on to anything with the label “legally binding.”

Under the EU deal, Europe would sign up to a second round of Kyoto promises, thus satisfying developing countries that are clamouring to keep the landmark treaty alive.

Sunita Narain, director general of a Delhi-based NGO, the Centre for Science and Environment, said traditional blocs of alliances had been smashed apart.

“This conference really shows that distrust is at its peak, between the rich and the poor, between EU and the BASIC, between BASIC and the AOSIS, between the Africans and the EU, between all the parties,” she said.

AOSIS is the Association of Small Island States (AOSIS), comprising 43 low-lying states that are badly exposed to rising sea levels.