Giving up climate treaty may unblock U.N. deal

BONN, Germany (Reuters) - The prospect of a global climate treaty is fading as the world’s top two carbon emitters, China and the United States, avoid legally binding action. Experts say a shift to a less ambitious goal might help.

A man selling brooms rides his bicycle past abandoned buildings in front of a chimney billowing smoke from a nearby coal-burning power station in Beijing March 10, 2010. REUTERS/David Gray

Less focus on a new treaty might resolve a tangle of disputes over the legal framework and drive concrete action, for example to preserve rainforests or to help developing nations cope with droughts, heatwaves, floods or rising seas.

U.N. climate talks to try to agree a tougher, wider successor to the present Kyoto Protocol entered their third year at an April 9-11 meeting in Bonn, Germany, the first since a fractious summit in Copenhagen in December.

Copenhagen was billed as the world’s best chance to agree a new treaty. Failure to achieve a treaty or the smaller goal of binding carbon cuts for rich nations has sapped momentum and is forcing a search for less ambitious solutions.

“We can’t afford only to keep coming back year after year, we have to explore other options,” said Annie Petsonk, international counsel at the U.S.-based Environmental Defense Fund, adding that a treaty was still possible.

Annual U.N. climate meetings have failed to achieve any major breakthrough since signing the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. The present round of that pact expires in 2012.

Experts note a less formal deal, outside a legal framework, may now emerge, building on the actions of individual nations.

More than 100 countries have backed a non-binding Copenhagen Accord to mobilize $30 billion in climate aid from 2010-2012 to help poor nations face the impacts of climate change, underscoring what could be agreed outside a legal framework.

“It used to be said that countries would only act if there was a treaty, but that’s not the case,” said Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director at Natural Resources Defense Council.

“A lot is happening even though we don’t have an international agreement,” he said, referring to the accord.


Mexico, which will host the next annual talks after Copenhagen in Cancun in late 2010, said that demands for a legally binding treaty should not get in the way of progress at that meeting.

“We do not want to get ensnared in the legal stuff so that we will be prevented from moving. What we want is to achieve a sensible global mobilization,” Mexico’s chief delegate Fernando Tudela said.

“If a legally binding treaty is possible and helps, we are all for it. But it’s not a pre-condition for moving in the right direction.” One senior developing country delegate accepted privately that the U.N. process may never agree a legal pact.

The difficulty of agreeing a binding treaty centers on the United States and China, who “remain in a dance about this issue,” said Jennifer Morgan, from the World Resources Institute.

“There’s not a legal treaty until you break this Gordian knot of the U.S. and China in particular having very different views of what it means to be legally binding,” said Alden Meyer, of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

U.S. legislation to cut emissions is stalled in the U.S. Senate. And the United States will balk at binding targets unless China makes its own actions accountable in some international way.

Another roadblock to any treaty is a requirement for unanimity in U.N. talks -- absent in Copenhagen and which remained elusive in Bonn, as developing nations notably Cuba, Bolivia and Venezuela rejected any attempt to build agreement in smaller groups.

One of the reasons why a treaty has been the goal, especially of developing countries, was because it allows for sanctions on rich countries which miss their targets. Enforcing a non-binding deal is far more difficult.

Petsonk advocated an approach where rich nations tied developing countries and each other to certain minimum action before benefiting from a $125 billion carbon market.

That would draw upon a voluntary World Trade Organization model which has widened free trade by offering the benefits of WTO membership.

The biggest buyer of carbon offsets, the European Union, has already laid plans to limit its financing of carbon-cutting projects in emerging economies which do not bolster climate action. The United States, Japan and Australia plan cap and trade schemes which would scale up that carbon finance carrot.

Without such an approach the only crutch to a non-binding deal may be international criticism. “Naming and shaming may be what we end up with,” Meyer said.

Editing by Alison Williams