U.S. Stance on Climate Deal Draws Barbs From EU to Barbados

U.S. climate envoy Jonathan Pershing
Jonathan Pershing, US Deputy Special Envoy for Climate Change. Photographer: Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama’s position that dangerous global warming can be avoided without deeper cuts in fossil-fuel emissions before 2020 has prompted a backlash in countries from Norway to Barbados.

There are “multiple pathways” to prevent temperatures from rising 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) without countries strengthening pledges to reduce greenhouse gases by 2020, U.S. climate envoy Jonathan Pershing said at United Nations climate talks last week.

“It’s a very risky assumption, too risky,” Norway’s top climate change envoy, Henrik Harboe, said in an interview. “We know we are far below the recommendations of science.”

The question of when the world acts to contain global warming is at the heart of the talks in Durban, South Africa, where delegates from more than 190 nations are working on how to take the next steps in curbing emissions after the limits outlined in the Kyoto Protocol expire next year.

Pressure on the Obama administration to ease its position on a new climate deal before 2020 was underscored earlier today when a U.S. student disrupted a high-level plenary session in Durban as Stern was starting to speak.

“The Obama administration is feeling the heat,” Lou Leonard, director of WWF’s climate change program, based in Washington, said in an interview from Durban.

Need for Ambition

U.S. Special Envoy on Climate Change Todd Stern later rejected suggestions that the nation’s position means it wants to postpone action on climate change, noting his support for measures agreed in the past two years that require more countries to pledge emissions cuts.

“There is a misconception about the U.S, wanting to delay action on climate change,” he told reporters in Durban. “It’s completely off base to suggest that the U.S. is proposing we delay action until 2020.”

The UN says pledges to cut greenhouse gases need to double by 2020 to contain warming to 2 degrees above preindustrial levels. While scientists say a rise of 1.5 degrees may lead to “dangerous” climate shifts, countries have agreed to take steps to ensure warming doesn’t exceed the 2-degree mark.

“There are no credible scientific scenarios that will allow temperatures to be held under 2 degrees if action is taken after 2020,” Selwin Hart, an envoy from Barbados, said in an interview in Durban.


Over the past million years, warming of 4 degrees has been enough to pull the world out of ice ages, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in Washington. Scientists say an average temperature rise of 1.5 degrees to 2.5 degrees will trigger droughts and extreme weather, putting as many as 30 percent of plant and animal species at risk of extinction.

“Even with 2 degrees Celsius it’s not going to be a vision of paradise,” Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said in an interview. If emissions continue on a rising trajectory, the gain this century could be as much as 6.4 degrees, he said.

Stern says it sees the temperature target as an “important and serious goal” that should guide efforts to control climate change.

“That is different from looking at it as an operational cap that you must meet,” Stern said at a briefing yesterday. “I think you have as you look at science and you see the trajectory it ought to inform our sense of what needs to be done. We don’t see it as akin to a national target.”

Polluters Debate

The U.S.’s position means “much, much steeper reductions” will be needed by countries after 2020, Keya Chatterjee, director of climate negotiations for WWF, said in an interview. “It would really strain the edges of what would be doable.”

The biggest polluters are debating this week how and when to cut fossil fuel emissions.

The European Union said it won’t agree to continue under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, whose first phase of emissions cuts expire next year, unless all countries agree to forge a new legally binding agreement in 2015.

The U.S. says it’s open to informally discussing a “road map” leading to a new accord, though it won’t agree to begin formal negotiations for a legally binding treaty until China, the world’s biggest emitter, and other fast-growing economies are willing to do their equal share under such a pact. As of now they aren’t, according to Stern.

Kyoto Plan

The U.S. says the political accord reached at UN talks in Mexico last year, known as the Cancun Agreements, mark a breakthrough in the two decades of global climate negotiations because it includes pledges from all major emitters, including China and India, and accounting for more than 80 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases.

Under Kyoto, which the U.S. never ratified, developing countries aren’t required to make emissions cuts.

The Obama administration’s top priority at the UN talks is the Cancun Agreements, which call for actions to curb emissions through 2020.

“We are strongly committed to promptly staring a process to move forward,” Stern said today. It’s nonsense to suggest we’re proposing a kind of hiatus in dealing with climate change up to 2020.’’

Critics of this view say the world is at grave risk if a new deal isn’t reached earlier.

“A legally binding agreement after 2020 would be disastrous for humanity, global temperature will rise at least 4 degrees-plus,” Bangladesh Environment Minister Hasan Mahmud said in an interview.

Costs Rising

The Paris-based International Energy Agency said last month that delaying a global deal to protect climate is a “false economy” because costs to deal with increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will surge.

“You can postpone action, but the costs will be much higher, and the impacts would be far more serious. The costs keep going up for every year of delay,” Pachauri said.

For every $1 of investment avoided before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions, the IEA said in its World Energy Outlook on Nov. 9.

If current pledged energy policies around the world are implemented, the planet is on a trajectory for warming of 3.5 degrees Celsius, it said.

“If you look at the science and you look at economic analysis, what it tells you if you delay action by a couple of years, then it makes it much more expensive,” Artur Runge-Metzger, the lead European Union envoy at the talks, said in an interview.

Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists say the U.S.’s position in effect means the world is “taking a pass for the next decade.”

“If we do that we’ve blown any chance of staying below 2 degrees, maybe 3 degrees,” he said.

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