Climate Treaty Is Possible, UN Envoy Says, Rejecting U.S. View

The United Nations diplomat leading talks on a binding treaty to curb global warming today rejected the U.S. position that the negotiations are based on unrealistic expectations.

“What is not doable is not to address climate change and not to do it in a timely fashion and at the level which it merits and with the urgency it needs to be done,” Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change told reporters in New York.

“We certainly understand that different countries are at different political moments, but on the whole what is not doable is to evade the responsibility of addressing climate change as a collection of countries, as a community of nations,” Figueres said.

She was responding to statements last month by Todd Stern, the State Department official who heads the U.S. negotiating team, that the talks are based on “unrealistic” expectations that are “not doable.” Stern said a meeting in Bangkok was “marked by struggles over the agenda” similar to “bickering over the shape of the negotiating table.”

His comments were the strongest criticism yet from the U.S. of the process aimed at capping greenhouse gases. With President Barack Obama facing re-election next year and some of his Republican opponents questioning the science underpinning the climate talks, the government hasn’t shown willingness to set binding targets for reducing fossil-fuel emissions.

Stern’s comments suggest rich nations and developing nations remain too divided to make progress on establishing worldwide limits. He said talks scheduled for December in Durban, South Africa, should focus on writing the rulebook for institutions that would monitor worldwide agreements on aid and forest protection.

‘Pick Up Speed’

“Governments can and should pick up speed and focus on all fronts,” Figueres said. “Work to design new climate institutions has begun and needs to be completed by Durban.”

The meeting in Bangkok was notable, she said, for the recognition that even if a new treaty is agreed in Durban, a “transitional arrangement” will be needed between its ratification and the expiration of the Kyoto Protocol.

“They are realizing the fact is that even if they do come to a solution in Durban, the ratification time needed for that new agreement to come into effect is such that we will be very likely to face a ratification gap after 2012,” she said. “Governments are very seriously engaged in looking at this issue. It is probably going to be the issue of most political attention throughout this year.”

Emissions Commitments

At the UN talks in Cancun five months ago, countries agreed to put forward national emissions commitments, share technology for clean energy systems and establish a climate fund to help poorer nations adapt to rising sea levels and more intense storms.

“You don’t need a treaty to do that,” Stern said. He said a legally binding treaty of the sort envoys sought to write in Copenhagen two years ago is “unworkable,” and national regulations hold the key to stanching CO2 output.

Figueres said diplomats before Durban need to settle on the design of the fund, technology mechanisms, adaptation commitments, and “modalities for monitoring, reporting and verification.”

As to the larger “architectural” issues of a possible treaty, she said countries agreed in Bangkok to put those issues on the Durban agenda. They include “medium and long term targets, agreement on when emissions are going to peak, and how to put flesh on the bones of the review that needs to be done of the adequacy of emission reductions.”

It is too soon since Bangkok to forecast what progress will be made on those fronts this year, she said. Figueres said more will be known after a meeting in Bonn next month.

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