U.S. groups lower sights for global climate progress

WASHINGTON Wed Sep 23, 2009 3:47pm EDT

A protester holds up a placard during a Climate Change Protest in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, April 14, 2007. REUTERS/Hyungwon Kang

A protester holds up a placard during a Climate Change Protest in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, April 14, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Hyungwon Kang

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. groups pushing for a new international accord on climate control are scaling back their expectations for an end-of-year deal, openly talking on Wednesday about either pushing for an "interim" plan or a simple extension of negotiations set for December in Denmark.

With fewer than 75 days remaining before an international conference convenes in Copenhagen to determine the next steps on curbing destructive greenhouse gas emissions, some climate change experts are assessing the lack of progress and crafting what might be called a "Plan B."

"A blitz of high-level diplomacy might yet conjure a miracle, but ... the odds of a final, ratifiable deal by the time the clock hits zero appear virtually nil," wrote Elliot Diringer of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, in a recent Internet posting.

That assessment comes as developed and developing countries remain deeply divided over the burden each should shoulder in reducing carbon emissions and the U.S. Congress has yet to settle on legislation that would commit one of the world's largest polluters to significant reductions.

In an interview with Reuters, Diringer said negotiators ought to focus on crafting an ambitious roadmap for how to cut global industrial emissions of carbon dioxide at least 50 percent by 2050.

Ideally, he said, a final agreement could then be wrapped up next year. But that could slip to 2011, Diringer said, so settling on a new deadline "will have to be a judgment made then and there" in Copenhagen in December.

The existing program for cutting emissions blamed for global warming -- the Kyoto Protocol-- expires in 2012.

"Rather than a grand culmination, Copenhagen would be a powerful springboard toward a final deal," said Diringer.

But even a nonbinding interim agreement, which could contain tougher emission-reduction targets and outline aid for developing countries to expand their use of costlier alternative energies, could be difficult to attain.

REASONS FOR OPTIMISM:

That was clear this week, as new pledges for action were scarce at a one-day U.N. climate summit in New York. And expectations were low that a breakthrough would be achieved in Pittsburgh on Thursday and Friday, when finance ministers from large economies discuss climate change aid for developing nations.

Despite the slow, difficult negotiations in the run-up to Copenhagen, some experts saw progress.

"The idea that we must have (a final) agreement at the end of that meeting or the entire U.N. climate process falls apart is simply false," said Andrew Light, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Like Diringer, Light said Copenhagen could be a success if officials meeting in December adopt an "architecture" for reaching a new agreement. "Final numbers for emissions targets for developed and developing countries can come later through an extension process," he said.

He also cited some recent positive developments, including a new U.S. proposal for governments to phase out fossil fuel subsidies that encourage burning of dirty fuel and Washington's start-up program for measuring domestic carbon emissions.

He noted that the United States had only become a real player in the climate fight eight months ago, with the swearing in of President Barack Obama.

Light also noted that the UN's Copenhagen negotiations are not the only venue for climate discussions, as several bilateral and multilateral talks have sprouted. These include a U.S.-China promise to collaborate.

Quickly becoming the world's leading carbon polluter, China is often criticized by conservative politicians in the United States as being dilatory in the climate control fight.

But David Yarnold, executive director of the Environmental Defense Fund, opened a climate conference in New York on Wednesday applauding Beijing, saying it was "no laggard in the race to develop clean energy and reduce global warming pollution."

(Editing by David Alexander and Todd Eastham)

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