Climate Pact ‘Unrealistic,’ Former U.S. Officials Say

Former U.S. State Department Official Tim Wirth
Tim Wirth, who worked on the UN climate talks in the 1990s, said, “It’s completely unrealistic to continue talking about a single, overarching treaty at least for the next 15 or 20 years.” Photographer: Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images

A single, legally binding global climate treaty is impossible to craft and the United Nations should give up trying, focusing instead on measures to reduce global warming, former U.S. climate negotiators said.

“It’s completely unrealistic to continue talking about a single, overarching treaty at least for the next 15 or 20 years,” Tim Wirth, a lead U.S. negotiator at the Kyoto Climate Conference in 1997, said in an interview in Cancun, Mexico, where 193 countries are debating a new accord to cut global greenhouse-gas emissions.

Talks in Cancun remain stuck on the same raft of issues that killed negotiations last year in Copenhagen, where countries scrapped a UN deadline for a new treaty. Instead, major emitters including the U.S. and China forged a political accord aimed at curbing greenhouse gases by 2020.

Expectations for a new treaty out of Copenhagen doomed the summit to be perceived as a failure, according to Eileen Claussen, who worked on UN climate talks under U.S. President Bill Clinton. The same risk exists now as negotiators try to lay groundwork for a climate deal.

“We have to put aside this idea that we will have this one magical treaty,” said Claussen, now president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. “That’s not going to happen for some time and people need to start communicating and understanding that reality.”

The remarks in interviews at this week’s UN climate conference in Cancun, Mexico, are the most vocal skepticism yet from U.S. officials involved in the effort to restrain global warming. While opponents of a global climate treaty have said it wouldn’t pass in the U.S. Senate, administration officials past and present until now remained supportive of the process.

With this year’s climate conference involving 6,164 diplomats from 193 nations bogging down, Claussen and Wirth say the UN should reduce the expectations of European Union nations and developing countries that are lobbying hardest for a treaty.

U.S. lead negotiator Todd Stern said last week in Cancun that the prospects for a legally binding agreement don’t look good anytime soon. The U.S. says it will only enter such a pact if other major emitters, including emerging big economies such as China, do the same.

“It’s a question of trying to see what can be done in the real world,” Stern said at a Dec. 3 briefing in Cancun. “If it’s legally binding mitigation commitments for the U.S. and Europe and Japan and everybody else, there would need to be legally binding mitigation commitments for China and India and Brazil and so forth. I just don’t think that we are there yet.”

Chinese negotiators in Cancun are stressing their long-held position that only developed nations’ emissions-reduction targets be internationally legally binding. China says its actions to curb greenhouse gases must remain “voluntary” and “autonomous.”

Meanwhile, India’s environment minister Jairam Ramesh says an international agreement is “not anywhere on the horizon.”

“Action has to be domestic,” he said in an interview in New Delhi. “That’s what the last 15 months has shown.”

Companies Concerned

Corporate chief executive officers also are weighing in.

Coca-Cola Co. CEO Muhtar Kent said multiple international accords, not a single treaty, are needed to fight climate change.

“I don’t think one treaty can work for the world,” Kent, 58, said in a Nov. 29 interview in Cancun.

Duke Energy Corp. CEO Jim Rogers, also in Cancun last week, said it’s unclear whether the UN process can achieve its goal of a new climate deal.

“It’s an open question about whether or not this framework leads us to that outcome,” he said.

Branson’s View

Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd., said one global treaty to fight climate change and protect the planet is ideal.

“But if it’s not going to happen you have to be pragmatic and think of other alternatives,” Branson said in an interview in Cancun last week.

A key setback in the global climate talks is lack of U.S. legislation at home, which limits what the Obama administration can agree to in the negotiations.

Earlier this year, President Barack Obama’s climate change bill setting out steps to cut fossil fuel emissions blamed for global warming stalled in the Senate. Then Republicans won control of the House of Representatives and made gains in the Senate in November elections from Obama’s Democrats.

Obama now says climate legislation probably can’t win congressional approval until 2013 at the earliest. Gambia’s climate envoy, Pa Ousman Jarju, last week in Cancun called the U.S. a “wounded elephant.”

“We know there’s nothing they can push here because of their domestic circumstances,” he said.

Skeptical Congress

More Republicans and climate skeptics in Congress also means it would be more difficult to get Senate ratification of a new treaty.

“It will be hard to impossible to deliver Senate ratification,” Alden Meyer, who has attended the UN climate talks for the Union of Concerned Scientists for more than a decade, said in an interview.

Shin Kicking

Few current negotiators would go on the record saying a single treaty is too ambitious. Some, looking ahead to next year’s talks in South Africa, say a binding treaty may not be desirable at the moment.

“Of course getting to a legally binding treaty depends on the substance,” Brazil’s climate negotiator Luiz Alberto Figueiredo Machado said at a briefing on Dec. 7. “If we have a very weak result, we are not in favor of crystallizing that as the international response to climate change.”

Wirth said the biggest issue is how to dole out responsibilities between industrial nations and developing ones for emissions cuts. While the U.S. is the world’s biggest economy and most able to absorb the cost of limiting emissions, China’s is now the world’s biggest polluter, and India is catching up.

The best way forward is strengthening market measures that give incentives for cleaner industry, tightening regulations on polluters and forging more regional agreements to cut emissions, Wirth said.

“The U.S. and Chinese leadership should stand up and say this together,” said Wirth, also a former U.S. Senator who now heads the UN Foundation, a Washington-based organization backed by billionaire Ted Turner to assist the work of the United Nations. “It’s the most natural alliance. They should be allies in this rather than kicking each other in the shin.”

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