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U.S., EU Expect Limited Progress at Climate Talks, No Treaty

U.S., EU Expect Limited Progress at Climate Talks, No Treaty
Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), speaking in Cancun, Mexico. Photographer: Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. and European Union envoys said they expect progress on forming a $100 billion fund to fight global warming and on protecting forests at climate talks in Cancun, Mexico, though no treaty will be agreed.

“We come here with a sense of realism,” said Peter Wittoeck, climate negotiator for Belgium, which holds the rotating presidency of the 27-nation EU. “This will have to be an incremental step.”

The comments, at the start of two weeks of meetings involving more than 190 nations, suggest there’s not enough political backing for an accord to limit an increase in the temperature of the atmosphere to 2 degrees Celsius, said Christiana Figueres, the UN’s chief envoy leading the talks.

“Even if all the national targets and actions now on the table were enacted in full, they will not lead to the goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius,” Figueres said today at a press conference in Cancun, Mexico.

Gains of that scale would exacerbate the harmful effects of climate change, which already this year has been responsible for 21,000 deaths, twice the level in 2009, according to Oxfam. The London-based pressure group said global warming is linked to record temperatures and floods in Pakistan that displaced 20 million people and wildfires in Russia that destroyed 26 percent of the nation’s wheat crop this year.

‘Will Not Deliver’

“Cancun will not deliver everything that a global response to climate change should,” said Tim Gore of Oxfam. “It can deliver outcomes that will benefit poor people.”

With the World Meteorological Organization warning that emissions of the greenhouse gasses blamed for damaging the atmosphere are at a record, envoys have yet to work out a way to extend the cuts to carbon dioxide output they agreed in Kyoto, Japan in 1997.

Talks aimed at a treaty collapsed in Copenhagen a year ago and produced instead a non-binding package of promises from the U.S., China, India and other countries. Figueres and Jonathan Pershing, who leads the U.S. delegation, said progress this year could be made on reducing emissions by protecting forests that absorb CO2 and on starting a “green fund” that would help poor nations adapt to climate change.

“If countries take a determined and pragmatic view we can make progress on anchoring mitigation pledges,” Pershing said at a press conference after talks began in Cancun. “We can make progress on creating a green fund. Balanced advances in all of these would be an important contribution in dealing with the climate change problem.”

Obama’s Pledge

Pershing reiterated President Barack Obama’s pledge to cut emissions 17 percent by 2020 and on delivering $1.7 billion in 2010 for the green fund even though elections in November restricted the administration’s influence in Congress. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Nancy Sutley, an adviser to the White House, will attend the talks next week.

Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa, who is chairing the discussions, said that “the minimum” the talks should accomplish is a confirmation of the pledges like the one Obama made at Copenhagen.

Figueres, who took her post earlier this year after predecessor Yvo de Boer resigned in the wake of the failure at Copenhagen, urged delegates to compromise in order to reach an agreement.

‘Compromise’ is ‘Wisdom’

“When the stakes are high and the issues are challenging, compromise is an act of wisdom that can unite different positions in creative ways,” Figueres, who is the head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, said in a speech to delegates today.

Tomorrow, negotiators will discuss a plan that formally would call on nations to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times. Such language was included last year in Copenhagen by the U.S., China, India and other countries but not adopted by the UN-led talks.

Delegates gathering for the talks this weekend said divisions between the U.S. and China, the world’s two biggest polluters, helped rule out a new treaty this year.

While China looks like it will incorporate its Copenhagen pledges into law next year, the situation in the U.S. is “difficult” at the moment after elections earlier in the month changed the composition of Congress, said Artur Runge-Metzger, lead negotiator for the 27-nation European Union.

‘Tough Task’

“China is certainly trying to make efforts to put the pledges they made into Copenhagen into their five-year plan,” Runge-Metzger said in an interview in Cancun last night. “It’s a tough task for the Obama administration to take this matter forward because it’s heavily politicized.”

The efforts to reduce output of carbon dioxide from cars, power plants and other man-made sources is urgent, Figueres said, citing a report from the World Meteorological Organization last week that showed concentrations of greenhouse gases at record levels.

Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the panel that oversees climate science for the UN, said emissions must peak by 2015 and then start declining if the world hopes to avoid dangerous and irreversible climate shifts.

“Warming of the climate system is now unequivocal,” said Pachauri, who leads the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “Warming could lead to some impacts that are abrupt or irreversible” and delaying action “only increase costs globally.”

Deaths in Mexico

Mexican President Felipe Calderon told negotiators in Cancun today that global warming already is causing natural disasters in his nation, killing at least 60 people this year in storms and events linked to turbulent weather alone in his country and 1,000 in Guatemala.

“Climate change is already a reality for us,” Calderon said. “When we are negotiating we should think of our children. We should think of the generations to come. In this territory there can be no rivalries. It is a shared challenge.”

Figueres said the delegates had a complicated but not impossible task ahead of them. She noted rich nations already had pledged $28 billion of the finance needed to help poor countries cope with climate change.

“In the past, you have woven tapestries that have turned into significant achievements,” Figueres said. “I urge you to further advance those issues in Cancun and to continue weaving them into ever more effective achievements. The task isn’t easy, but it’s achievable.”

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