Climate talks in a bad atmosphere

Delegates from dozens of countries reject a draft agreement on greenhouse gas emissions as deeply flawed

One by one, representatives of dozens of countries stood before UN climate talks in Bonn on Friday to shoot down the latest effort to advance the debate over fighting climate change.

"It should remain a non-paper and we do not wish to see it again," a spokesman for Egypt said of the draft that came out of two weeks of talks in the German city. "The recipe we put on the table and were refining the past two weeks has been refined by you, and you present us with a very strange meal we cannot eat," a negotiator from Saudi Arabia told the conference chairwoman. Reaching a global consensus on a topic as sensitive as energy use is difficult in the best of conditions. But a rancourous finale for the latest round of climate negotiations shows that countries still have a long way to go just to set out the terms of the debate, let alone develop confidence in an international regime to mandate changes to how they burn fossil fuels.

Large developing countries remain doubtful that industrialised nations - especially the US - will live up to their promises to cut emissions and offer aid to the poorest countries. Leaders of the industrialised world, however, say they cannot gather support from their legislatures without more transparency on cuts in China, India, Brazil and other big emitters to show that everyone is sharing the burden,

Most climate scientists agree that emissions of greenhouse gases are warming the planet and that rapid action is needed by all countries to cut carbon dioxide output to avert catastrophic changes to sea levels and weather patterns, including drought cycles. Slow-moving UN climate talks, however, are unlikely to offer a solution in the next year. The new UN climate chief, Christiana Figueres, downplayed expectations in her first press conference on Wednesday, saying a final deal that satisfied everyone might never be reached.

"I do not believe we will ever have a final agreement on climate change, certainly not in my lifetime," she said. "If we ever have a final, conclusive, all-answering agreement, then we will have solved this problem. I don't think that's in the cards." Yvo de Boer, her predecessor, said "slapdash is easy, perfection takes time" in his farewell remarks after four years as chief moderator of the talks.

"We know that the current pledges from industrialised countries are not sufficient to bring us into the 25 to 40 per cent range [of emissions reductions] that the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] projects in its most ambitious scenario, but we are on a longer journey," he said. The admissions were a marked contrast in tone from last year, when UN officials and global leaders looked to talks in Copenhagen to reach a grand compromise. Industrialised countries would pledge big cuts, they said, in return for good-faith efforts by China, Brazil and other big polluters to curb emissions growth even as their economies and populations continued to expand.

Heads of government and ministers will meet for another round of high-level talks this December in Cancun, Mexico, but expectations are muted. The best that leaders hope to achieve is an official negotiating text and several firm conclusions on specific technical issues, said Antto Vihma, an expert on the UN climate process at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs in Helsinki. "Of course it's very frustrating - international law is a frustrating field," he said. "The overall ambience in the [UN Framework Convention on Climate Change] is not that good, and that makes things difficult. It's a little over-politicised, so even agreeing technical questions is difficult."

Friday's push-back against an outline of the terms of the debate offered a good example. After two weeks of talks, the conference chairwoman, Margaret Mukahanana-Sangarwe of Zimbabwe, attempted to bring the camps closer together by offering a list of the realistic options available to negotiators. The new draft excluded an option championed by Bolivia that would have required industrialised countries to cut emissions by "more than 100 per cent by 2040" for the "right of Mother Earth".

That goal goes far beyond all mainstream climate models. The draft also heightened the importance of a regime to measure and verify emissions reductions in developing countries. The Group of 77 nations and China, the umbrella bloc for the developing world, denounced the text as "unbalanced". Su Wei, the representative from China, said the draft text failed to follow the negotiating guidelines agreed on in 2007 in Bali, Indonesia. Those guidelines stress the different responsibilities of industrialised and developing countries.

"If we quantify the whole issue, we would say you deviated from the Bali road map by 50 per cent." The US also took issue with the draft, saying it contained "a number of ideas that the United States could not accept in an agreed outcome". The US - the world's second-largest emitter - is at the crux of the current impasse, because legislation passed by the House of Representatives to reduce emissions is being indefinitely held up by a sceptical Senate.

Without US action, which is seen as the first of two critical ingredients for a deal, staving off climate change is impossible, experts say, so other countries currently have little incentive to raise their level of commitment. But the biggest developing countries have baulked at the second key ingredient of any deal: submitting to a credible process to measure and verify voluntary commitments to cut carbon emissions.

Without some kind of verification regime, leaders of industrialised countries say they will never be able to convince their constituents that the burden of fighting climate change is being shared equitably across the world. If a deal is to come about, these two interlinked impasses must be resolved simultaneously, Mr Vihma said. The central issue in the impasse at Copenhagen and now at Bonn is that the world's biggest emitters are not yet prepared to cede control of energy policymaking to an international regime, he said.

"The main reason is that countries are really jealous of their sovereignty, especially the big countries like the US and BASIC [Brazil, South Africa, India and China]. They are not ready for it," he said.