Rich shelving CO2 cut ambitions as economies slow

OSLO (Reuters) - Many industrialised nations are shelving ambitions for the deepest cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 as economic slowdown overshadows the fight against climate change.

Has the credit crunch dulled nations' appetite for green reforms?

About 190 countries meet for U.N. climate talks in Poznan, Poland, this week with scant mention of a deal in Vienna last year by almost all rich nations to consider cuts in emissions of 25-40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.

“That target is perhaps something that’s on the back-burner for the time being,” said Rajendra Pachauri, head of the U.N. Climate Panel that said last year that industrialised nations needed to make such cuts to avoid the worst of warming.

Struggling with the worst financial crisis since the 1930s, everyone from U.S. President-elect Barack Obama to European leaders are focusing more on stimulus packages that should help a shift from fossil fuels by creating “green” jobs.

Pachauri said world leaders might find it easier to discuss ambitious cuts in a few months, “after the dust settles” from the financial crisis. Poznan will review progress towards a new climate treaty to be agreed by the end of 2009 in Copenhagen.

But he also told Reuters: “If we want to limit temperature increase to 2 Celsius (3.6 F), or thereabouts, then clearly (25-40) is the target we should be watching.”

Two Celsius is seen by the EU, some other nations and many environmentalists as a threshold for “dangerous” climate change -- disrupting water supplies, farming and causing more coastal floods from rising sea levels.

“Only the EU and Norway” have discussed cuts within the 25-40 percent band, said Harald Dovland, a senior Norwegian official who chairs a U.N. climate committee in Poznan looking at future pledges by industrialised nations.

The idea of 25-40 percent cuts was always a stretch.

But the Vienna agreement is likely to haunt many -- deep cuts by rich nations are often brandished by developing nations such as China and India as a pre-condition for the poor to start curbing their own rising emissions.

And the EU’s target only reaches Pachauri’s band because the 27-nation bloc has offered to cut emissions unilaterally by 20 percent below 1990 levels and by 30 percent by 2020 if other nations follow suit.

The 30 percent path, analysts say, looks ever more unlikely.

Obama’s United States, Japan and Canada plan cuts that would return their emissions to around 1990 levels by 2020. Australia will announce a 2020 goal before Poznan. Russian emissions are far below 1990 levels after the collapse of Soviet-era industry.

The EU, which sees itself as a climate leader, is struggling to carry through its unilateral goal and is handing concessions to heavy industry before a December 11-12 summit meant to seal the pact over objections from Italy and Poland.

Dovland said the jury was still out on the final impact of the financial crisis. “I hear both versions. Some say ‘we cannot’, others say ‘this is an opportunity to change to a low carbon society’,” he said.

John Kerry, acting chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he would travel to Poznan to give the message that “America is back” and committed to fighting global warming after little action by President George W. Bush.

Obama has spoken of a “planet in peril” and says he will cut U.S. emissions back to 1990 levels by 2020 -- they have risen about 14 percent above 1990 levels -- followed by far deeper cuts of 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

Kerry said the United States would be guided by the findings of Pachauri’s panel but also told a telephone briefing: “we have to try to figure out what is achievable in Copenhagen within one year, given our economic realities.”

Bush rejected the Kyoto Protocol, which obliges all other developed nations to cut emissions by at least 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. That means the United States, the top emitter with China, did not sign the Vienna statement.

A summit of 20 major economies about the financial crisis hosted by Bush in Washington this month barely mentioned climate change, listing it among “other challenges” alongside food security and terrorism.

Pachauri said he was not surprised. “One wouldn’t expect (Bush) to talk about climate change when the house around him was crumbling,” he said.

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Editing by Dominic Evans