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UN eyes global warming pact by 2009

By Joseph Coleman (Associated Press) - December 15, 2007

A U.N. climate conference adopted a plan to negotiate a new global warming pact on Saturday, after the United States suddenly reversed its opposition to a call by developing nations for technological help to battle rising temperatures.

The adoption came after marathon negotiations overnight, which first settled a battle between Europe and the U.S. over whether the document should mention specific goals for rich countries’ obligations to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Upcoming talks, to be completed in 2009, may help determine for years to come how well the world can control climate change, and how severe the consequences of global warming will be.

European and U.S. envoys dueled into the final hours of the two-week meeting over the EU’s proposal that the Bali mandate suggest an ambitious goal for cutting the emissions of industrial nations_ by 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.

That guideline’s specific numbers were eliminated from the text, but an indirect reference was inserted instead.

The negotiations snagged again early Saturday over demands by developing nations that their need for technological help from rich nations and other issues receive greater recognition in the document launching the negotiations.

The United States initially rejected those demands, but backed down after delegates criticized the U.S. stand and urged a reconsideration.

“I think we have come a long way here,” said Paula Dobriansky, head of the U.S. delegation. “In this, the United States is very committed to this effort and just wants to really ensure we all act together. We will go forward and join consensus.”

The sudden reversal was met with rousing applause.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who earlier expressed frustration with the last-minute disputes and urged delegates to end the deadlock, praised the United States for showing flexibility in the final hours.

“I am encouraged by, and I appreciate the spirit of flexibility of the U.S. delegation and other key delegations,” he told The Associated Press.

In a U.N. process requiring consensus, both sides won and lost.

The broadly worded “roadmap” doesn’t itself guarantee any level of emissions reductions or any international commitment by any country — only a commitment to negotiate.

As for developing countries, the final document instructs negotiators to consider incentives and other means to encourage poorer nations to curb, on a voluntary basis, growth in their emissions. The explosive growth of greenhouse emissions in China, India and other developing countries potentially could negate cutbacks in the developed world.

The Bali conference had been charged with launching negotiations for a regime of deeper emissions reductions to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, which requires 37 industrial nations to cut output of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.

The United States is the only major industrial nation to reject Kyoto. President Bush has complained that it would unduly damage the U.S. economy, and emission caps should have been imposed on China, India and other fast-growing developing countries.

The Bush administration instead favors a voluntary approach — each country deciding how it can contribute — in place of internationally negotiated and legally binding commitments.

The U.S. has come under intense criticism in Bali, including from former Vice President Al Gore, over the Bush administration’s opposition to mandatory emission cuts. But all parties acknowledged that negotiations cannot succeed without the involvement of the United States, the world’s leading emitter of greenhouse gases.

For years, the rest of the world has sought to bring the Americans into the framework of international mandates. At this point, however, many seem resigned to waiting for a change in White House leadership after next November’s election.

In a series of landmark reports this year, the U.N.’s network of climate scientists warned of severe consequences — from rising seas, droughts, severe weather, species extinction and other effects — without sharp cutbacks in emissions of the industrial, transportation and agricultural gases blamed for warming.

To avoid the worst, the Nobel Prize-winning panel said, emissions should be reduced by 25 percent to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.

The Kyoto Protocol nations have accepted that goal, and the numbers were written into early versions of the Bali conference’s draft statement — not as a binding target, but as a suggestion in the document’s preamble.

The U.S. delegation opposed inclusion of such numbers. American negotiator Harlan Watson said they would tend to “drive the negotiations in one direction.”

Environmentalists accused the U.S. of trying to wreck future talks.

“The United States in particular is behaving like passengers in first class in a jumbo jet, thinking a catastrophe in economy class won’t affect them,” said Tony Juniper, a spokesman for a coalition of environmentalists at the conference. “If we go down, we go down together, and the United States needs to realize that very quickly.”