Published online 16 June 2009 | 459, 894-895 (2009) | doi:10.1038/459894a


Climate talks snarled up

Two-pronged negotiations fail to bridge divide between nations.

US climate envoy Todd Stern (left) in talks with China’s vice-premier Li Keqiang.RAO AIMIN/Xinhua/Landov

International climate negotiators muddled through the latest round of global-warming talks in Bonn, Germany, last week, overshadowed by independent bilateral negotiations in Beijing between the United States and China.

Neither meeting produced any significant breakthroughs, and new disagreements seem to have outnumbered resolutions by a wide margin. At the United Nations climate talks that ended on 12 June in Bonn, delegates proposed so many new provisions and wording changes that the negotiation text ballooned fourfold to more than 200 pages — standard procedure for such negotiations, but one that flags up how much work remains to be done.

"We're at the point where we desperately need some higher-level leadership to get this process going," says Keya Chatterjee, deputy director for climate change at the WWF environmental group in Washington DC.

Many observers placed their hopes instead on the talks in China, which played host during 7–10 June to a US delegation led by Todd Stern, the nation's lead climate negotiator, and John Holdren, President Barack Obama's chief science adviser.

The two countries together produce some 40% of global greenhouse-gas emissions, and there is little chance of achieving an inter­national agreement in Copenhagen, where the UN talks are scheduled to conclude in December, unless the United States and China come to an understanding. Nonetheless, expectations going into the Beijing meeting were low.

“We’re at the point where we desperately need some higher-level leadership to get this process going.”

China released a position statement on 20 May calling on developed nations to reduce emissions to at least 40% below 1990 levels by 2020. The leading US climate legislation — a bill that could come up for a vote as early as this month in the House of Representatives — would establish an emissions-trading system to reduce US emissions to 1% below 1990 levels by 2020. Other provisions in the bill would go further, but even the most optimistic assessment, by the World Resources Institute, pegs potential reductions at only 17–23% below 1990 levels.

"We certainly did not agree with each other on everything," said Stern after returning to Washington, "but I think that we each came away with a better and a clearer understanding of each other's views and perspectives."

With just six months to go to Copenhagen and little convergence on any of the big issues, the question is whether countries are positioning themselves in expectation of striking a bargain there or merely digging trenches for a prolonged debate. Robert Stavins, an environmental economist at Harvard University, says he fears the latter might be true.

"The gulf between the countries of the industrialized world and what is usually referred to as the developing world," he says, "is, if anything, growing, or at least solidifying."

The largest pledged emissions cut on the table is of 30% from 1990 levels by 2020; that is what the European Union (EU) says it will do if others commit to similar cuts. If they don't, the EU offers only 20%. And things drop off quickly from there: Japan came under fire last week for proposing a plan to reduce domestic emissions by about 8% below 1990 levels.

Such numbers would seem to indicate a substantial divide among industrialized countries, but the gap largely disappears if the commitments are measured against a 2005 baseline.


Using this baseline, Japan's proposal is a 15% reduction by 2020; Europe's, 9–13%; and the United States', up to 10%, according to an analysis by Nigel Purvis, a former US negotiator and current president of the Climate Advisers consultancy in Washington DC. If programmes to reduce emissions internationally are included, US emissions could decrease up to 28%, with Japan's also likely to drop further.

Next up are climate discussions at the G8 meeting in July in L'Aquila, Italy, to be accompanied by a leadership session of the US-sponsored Major Economies Forum. 

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