Climate Deadlock Breaks as Slow UN Talks Frustrate U.S., EU

Climate change envoys broke a deadlock at United Nations talks in Germany, with European, U.S. and island nations warning the slow pace of negotiations threatens the chance of reaching a deal at the end of the year.

After a week of wrangling about the structure of the agenda that will guide talks leading to a new climate deal in 2015, delegates at the discussions in Bonn today bridged a divide that pitted about 36 nations including China and India against the European Union, U.S. and blocs of island and developing nations.

“We’re basically going around in circles,” Colin Beck, the lead negotiator for the Solomon Islands, said in an interview in Bonn. “We virtually have postponed action. Every year we do not take action, the cost in lives and the cost to the health of the environment continues to increase.”

Negotiators are trying to set new emissions targets under the existing Kyoto Protocol treaty, define what countries without Kyoto targets will do to cut their greenhouse gas output, and devise a new climate deal by 2015 that will take effect by 2020.

“We were disappointed and frustrated that the discussions at this meeting focused largely on procedural issues,” Jonathan Pershing, the U.S. delegation chief, told reporters today in the German city, where two weeks of negotiations end today. “Parties must not renegotiate agreements we have already reached.”

Debate on Agenda

The agenda agreed today will guide negotiations known as the Durban Platform through 2015 for a deal that will bind all nations to curtail greenhouse gas emissions, replacing the existing Kyoto Protocol, which imposed legally-binding targets only on developed nations.

The work program allows for countries to discuss ways to increase the ambition of emissions pledges that environmental groups and island nations say are insufficient to contain the rise in global temperatures since industrialization to the 2 degree-Celsius (3.6 degree-Fahrenheit) goal that envoys have set themselves.

“The biggest concern we have is countries are simply not responding fast enough,” Nira Amerasinghe, an attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law in Washington, said to reporters in Bonn. “We’re facing runaway climate change, and even today people are facing the devastating impacts.”

Three Tracks

The talks have three tracks: one, to define what nations with targets under the Kyoto Protocol will do when they expire at year end; another, called the the Long-Term Cooperative Action, or LCA track, which aims to define what those without targets will do, including the biggest emitters, the U.S. and China; and a third, known as the Durban Platform, which was agreed on in South Africa’s third-biggest city in December after talks overran by a day and a half.

“The spirit of cooperation that prevailed in Durban has not really carried fully over into this session,” Denmark’s Christian Pilgaard Zinglersen, who speaks for the 27-nation EU, said today in Bonn. Progress “was repeatedly impeded through procedural challenges. This means we have gotten far less out of Bonn that we had hoped.”

Even so, progress was made in Bonn on “work that doesn’t make the headlines but is essential,” Pershing said, citing discussions on forests, helping developing countries adapt to the effects of climate change and sharing technology.

‘Right Direction’

“We’re moving in the right direction, but it clearly needs to be increased in speed and scale,” said Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which guides the negotiations. She was referring to efforts to slash greenhouse gases.

Figueres said the UN body still hasn’t raised the 4.8 million euros ($6 million) needed to stage another round of interim discussions in Bangkok in August. That would help shape an agreement for ministers to consider at the year-end conference starting Nov. 26 in Doha, Qatar.

The time spent on debating the agenda in Bonn wasn’t wasted because it allowed countries to understand each other’s positions, Figueres said. That view was backed by Seyni Nafo, an envoy from Mali.

“It’s very healthy for the process as a whole to have such a discussion at the beginning,” Nafo, who speaks for the bloc of African nations, said in an interview. “We need to have a common understanding of the terms of reference. It hasn’t been wasted time.”

Kyoto Commitments

Negotiators this year still have to agree to a new round of commitments for developed countries under Kyoto to replace ones that expire at the end of 2012. The U.S. never ratified the treaty, Canada has withdrawn, and Japan and Russia have said they won’t take a second round of targets. Australia, New Zealand and Ukraine have yet to make their positions clear.

Envoys are working to establish what climate aid will be made available to developing countries from 2013 onwards, and define the length of the second commitment period of Kyoto. The EU wants that part of the plan to last eight years, while island nations say it should be five so that low ambitions aren’t locked in for a longer period.

Finding a middle ground that accommodates the U.S., China, Arab states and islands “is a very difficult job and becomes only more complicated as we get into real issues that have more and more effect on economies,” Pershing said. “My sense is we’ll conclude this agreement in the next four years, and we will have an outcome, but that it will be quite difficult along the way.”