SINGAPORE In a strategic shift, the United Nations has stopped urging nations to commit to tougher pledges to curb carbon emissions, fearing further debate could derail already fraught talks on a more ambitious climate pact.
It is better to start with pledges already offered and build from there, officials say, given the short time left to hammer out a pact that broadens the existing Kyoto Protocol by signing up all major emitters to fight climate change.
This effort is critical to ensure there is no gap after the end of Kyoto's first phase in 2012, to assure certainty to investors in the $2.7-billion U.N. carbon market.
"These pledges fall short of expectations but are not likely to change in the short run," senior U.N. climate official Halldor Thorgeirsson said in a speech late last month. "Continuing to negotiate ambition delays delivery of action."
The comments recognize that the talks risk stalling over the bitter issue of sharing the emissions-cutting burden between rich and poor nations and the lack of trust between major players, such top emitters China and the United States.
One senior climate negotiator called the move damage control.
Thorgeirsson's comments are also recognition that existing pledges won't stop the world warming well beyond an agreed temperature limit of less than 2 degrees Celsius.
Above this temperature, scientists say the world faces dangerous climate change, such as crop failures and wilder weather swings such as those that brought floods in Pakistan and drought in Russia this year.
Governments should focus on securing formal pledges of the emissions cuts already proposed, "fully realizing it is a first, necessary but insufficient step," the U.N.'s top climate official, Christiana Figueres, told Reuters on the sidelines of U.N. climate talks in China.
The one-week talks began on Monday in the northern city of Tianjin and aim to try and find a way forward ahead of a major meeting in the Mexican resort of Cancun from late November.
Negotiators are looking for ways to formalize the existing pledges of rich and poor nations listed under the Copenhagen Accord, a non-binding pact agreed amid acrimony at climate talks last year in Denmark.
A leaked U.N. report last year said the pledges would mean a world temperature rise of 3 degrees C. Scientists say greenhouse gas levels are rising quickly from big emitters such as China and that there is little time to act.
Tough targets are also crucial to help governments and businesses frame policies to guide investment away from polluting fossil fuels into green energy, such as wind and solar power.
Mobilizing potentially trillions of dollars in private capital is key to the climate fight and the final shape of any new climate pact will help determine how this money is spent.
This is why the U.N. hopes the Cancun talks agree on less controversial issues, such as launching a scheme to curb deforestation, a fund to help poorer nations adapt to climate impacts and a deal to share clean energy technology.
Formalizing the existing emissions reduction, or mitigation, pledges and placing them in a legally binding form will be a much tougher challenge, negotiators and analysts say.
"If you don't crack the mitigation nut, I don't think you get a deal," said Jennifer Morgan, director of the climate and energy programme of the Washington-based World Resources Institute.
One of the big questions ministers face, she said, is "Would they formalize their pledges and what is that linked with. Is that linked with a review of adequacy and what's the form of it?"
It was crucial to build in a future review of the targets and climate science that could trigger talks on agreeing tougher targets as a way of tightening a new agreement, she said.
FIRST CUTS AREN'T THE DEEPEST
The U.N. climate panel says rich nations need to cut emissions by 25 to 40 percent by 2020 from 1990 levels to avert dangerous climate change.
Big emitters China, India, Brazil and Indonesia have offered voluntary steps to rein emissions growth, but not absolute cuts. Kyoto only binds rich nations to meet emissions targets.
Developing countries have also insisted rich nations agree to cuts of at least 40 percent by 2020 as a first step and how this demand is resolved is key.
Agreement on specific targets from rich nations is also unclear, since some nations have set ranges under the Copenhagen Accord, depending on the strength of any future climate pact.
Australia has pledged an unconditional cut of 5 percent by 2020 from 2000 levels to a maximum of minus 25 percent.
Europe has pledged to cut emissions by 20 percent by 2020 from 1990 levels, Kyoto's base year, and up to 30 percent if all nations do more but it's unclear if Europe would accept Australia's minus-5 percent target as part of a binding decision.
For now, big emitters are unlikely to up their offers, partly because of lack of clarity on climate funds for poorer nations, no firm pact on monitoring developing countries' CO2-cutting efforts, and failure of the U.S. Congress to pass a climate bill.
"With respect to the targets, I think there will be an effort to enshrine the targets into decisions," said Ian Fry, the lead negotiator from Tuvalu, a low-lying cluster of Pacific atolls that fears rising seas could wipe it off the map.
"From our side these targets are totally inadequate and equate to a temperature stabilization level of 3 deg C," he told Reuters in an email.
How to formalize the pledges remains a puzzle, Morgan said, but it goes to the heart of the eventual shape of a broader, legally binding climate pact.
"It's controversial for some countries to think about taking that (Copenhagen) Accord and putting it into decisions but in some ways we don't have a lot of time to start over again," Morgan said.
(Additional reporting by Gerard Wynn in London, Alister Doyle in Oslo and Chris Buckley in Tianjin; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)