Tough Slog Ahead to Fulfill UN Climate Summit Promises

After the protests, speeches and corporate pledges, world leaders ended the United Nations climate summit facing as tough a slog as ever to get a deal on cutting greenhouse-gas emissions.

U.S. President Barack Obama and more than 100 other world leaders promised to seek a global agreement addressing climate change. They took the stage yesterday to lay out how rising ocean levels, intensifying cyclones, record flooding or hotter heat waves threaten their nations.

“The alarm bells keep ringing. Our citizens keep marching,” Obama told the delegates at the UN in New York. “We cannot pretend we do not hear them.”

What those warnings left unaddressed is how the nations will resolve their longstanding differences and secure an accord to cut emissions by the end of next year, the agreed upon deadline.

“The key, difficult negotiating issues for the new international agreement are all still before us now,” Peter Ogden, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, said in an interview. The center is a research group founded by associates of former President Bill Clinton.

At the heart of earlier disputes were demands from the U.S. that large developing nations such as China, India and Brazil agree to cap and reduce their emissions, just as rich nations said they would do. Obama made it clear that he would not back down from that demand.

No Passes

“We can only succeed in combating climate change if we are joined in this effort by every nation -- developed and developing alike,” he said. “Nobody gets a pass.”

Following the breakdown in negotiations at a UN meeting in Copenhagen in 2009, and the failure by the U.S. to adopt the 1997 Kyoto treaty, analysts were looking to China and the U.S. to see what each could offer.

Combined, they account for about 45 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions.

Developing countries want rich nations to pay billions of dollars to help them boost renewable energy and address the problems of global warming. Those pledges remain largely unfulfilled, although French President Francois Hollande pledged $1 billion, matching a similar pledge from Germany. The U.S. hasn’t pledged a contribution yet.

“For the negotiations, that is critical,” Ogden, a former Obama administration official, said in an interview.

The brainchild of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, the daylong summit was designed to create momentum for negotiations. Negotiators are next set to meet in Lima in December. Obama urged nations to issue their pledges for future emissions cuts early next year.

300,000 Marchers

The discussions inside the UN followed marches by more than 300,000 people through Manhattan on Sept. 21, the largest social protest in the last decade. Marchers included former vice president Al Gore, actor Leonardo DiCaprio and, even, the UN leader himself, Ban.

Protesters “asked me to bring their voices into the halls of the United Nations, and that’s what I’ve done,” Ban said.

Companies brought their voices, too, with some saying they’d act on their own to preserve forests, reduce methane leaks and swap out the use of potent hydrofluorocarbons. More than 1,000 corporate leaders signed on to support a tax or cap on carbon, an action World Bank President Jim Kim called remarkable.

Cargill Inc. joined with other makers of palm oil to pledge that their production of the commodity won’t lead to deforestation, and said its pledge on that commodity will be matched by similar efforts on the other crops it buys.

Statoil ASA joined with five other companies in saying it would limit the methane emissions from its oil production. And Ikea Group, the world’s largest home furnishing retailer, and insurer Swiss Re Ltd. led a group of companies promising that they would phase out use of fossil-fuel energy in the coming decades.

Action Taken

In addition, the U.S. government announced that companies would begin phasing out hydrofluorocarbons, which are short-term but intense warming compounds used in air conditioners and refrigerators.

During the summit, Obama highlighted steps the U.S. is already taking to cut carbon-dioxide pollution from power plants and reduce funding for overseas coal projects as a demonstration of the commitment of the world’s largest economy and second-largest emitter.

“He made it clear the U.S. is serious about fighting climate change through major cuts to our carbon pollution,” Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York-based environmental group, said in a statement.

Power Plants

Last year, Obama issued a climate-action plan, vowing the first regulations limiting greenhouse gases from power plants, a cut in U.S. government financing for overseas coal plants and accelerated progress on efficiency standards for everything from microwave ovens to walk-in freezers. The power-plant rules, the centerpiece of his plan, were proposed earlier this year and are set to be completed next June.

Taken together, the combination of Obama’s regulations, cheap natural gas and the 18-month recession that ended in 2009 mean the U.S. is on course to hit the 17 percent reduction in emissions that Obama had pledged to the UN in 2009.

China, which has displaced the U.S. as the top emitter, was represented by Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, who pledged that it would cap its emissions. At previous summits, China had promised only to reduce its rate of emissions.

“A peak is an absolute limit,” said David Waskow of the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based research group. “Obama and Zhang served as bookends, showing the two largest emitters are ready to act.”

China’s Emissions

Last week, Chinese officials vowed to cut carbon emissions per unit of gross domestic product by 50 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels. The National Development and Reform Commission said it will reduce consumption of the most-polluting forms of coal and stabilize emissions from the steel and cement industries.

“China will advance a revolution in energy production and consumption, cap total energy consumption, raise energy efficiency and vigorously develop non-fossil fuels,” Zhang said.

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