"Obama’s Backing Raises Hopes for Climate Pact
By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL
Published: February 28, 2009
Until recently, the idea that the world’s most powerful nations might come together to tackle global warming seemed an environmentalist’s pipe dream.
The Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997, was widely viewed as badly flawed. Many countries that signed the accord lagged far behind their targets in curbing carbon dioxide emissions. The United States refused even to ratify it. And the treaty gave a pass to major emitters in the developing world like China and India.
But within weeks of taking office, President Obama has radically shifted the global equation, placing the United States at the forefront of the international climate effort and raising hopes that an effective international accord might be possible. Mr. Obama’s chief climate negotiator, Todd Stern, said last week that the United States would be involved in the negotiation of a new treaty — to be signed in Copenhagen in December — “in a robust way.”
That treaty, officials and climate experts involved in the negotiations say, will significantly differ from the agreement of a decade ago, reaching beyond reducing greenhouse gas emissions and including financial mechanisms and making good on longstanding promises to provide money and technical assistance to help developing countries cope with climate change.
The perception that the United States is now serious has set off a flurry of diplomacy around the globe. “The lesson of Kyoto is that if the U.S. isn’t taking it seriously there is no reason for anyone else to,” said Bill McKibben, who runs the environmental organization http://www.350.org/.
But a global treaty still faces serious challenges in Washington and abroad, and the negotiations will be a test of how far the United States and other nations are prepared to go to address climate change at a moment when economies around the world are unspooling. The global recession itself is expected to result in a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, as manufacturing and other polluting industries shrink, lessening the pressure on countries to take action.
The Obama administration has said that it will push through federal legislation this year to curb carbon dioxide emissions in the United States — a promise that Mr. Obama reiterated Tuesday in his speech to Congress.
Negotiating the treaty when countries are under extreme economic stress presents challenges, Mr. de Boer acknowledged. Politicians in Italy and Canada have complained that it will be difficult to clean up industries to meet their Kyoto goals because of the economic downturn. But others say a global industrial recession, in which emissions tend to drop anyway and countries are poised to spend billions to stimulate economies, is the time to craft a global effort to combat global warming.
Mr. Obama has said the United States will lead the effort, but over the next months, he will have to show what exactly that means. A good first step, environmentalists say, would be to commit to trying to limit warming to two degrees centigrade above pre-industrial temperatures, an ambitious goal that the European Union has adopted but that the Bush administration steadfastly avoided. It could also pledge to reduce emissions by 50 or 80 percent by 2050.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that humans could largely adapt to two degrees of warming, but that a greater temperature increase could cause far more serious consequences, from a dangerous rise in sea levels to mass extinctions.
Climate experts added that the United States did not need to have in place national legislation to limit greenhouse gasses, a process that could take months, to negotiate in Copenhagen. “It’s not just about analyzing a piece of legislation,” Mr. Ashton said. “It’s about the feeling you get if you’re a leader sitting in Beijing. It’s like love; you know it when you feel it.”
A more complex issue is whether negotiators will retain the system of trading carbon credits that is central to the Kyoto Protocol, a kind of global commodities market for carbon.
“This is not just about emissions but about creating a massive investment in a new global energy economy” that includes forests, oceans and the transfer of technology, said Angela Anderson, director of the Pew Environment Group’s Global Warming Campaign.
Contributing reporting were Mark Landler from Beijing and Andrew C. Revkin."
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