Climate change forum grapples with rival agendas

 

After eight years of negativity, Obama's approach is a breath of fresh air, writes Frank McDonaldin Poznan

BARACK OBAMA is nowhere near the Polish city of Poznan, but his pledge that the US stance on global warming will change utterly when he takes over from President George Bush on January 20th has altered the dynamics of the 14th UN Climate Change Conference.

After eight years of negativity and obstruction from the Bush administration, Obama's positive approach to tackling the biggest environmental challenge facing humanity has come as a breath of fresh air, injecting a dose of optimism into the process.

In a video-taped message to a recent meeting of US state governors, hosted by California's Arnold Swartzenegger, the president-elect went way beyond bland generalities and made a number of explicit promises that even took some environmentalists by surprise.

Obama also had a message for the delegates from 180 countries in Poznan: "Once I take office, you can be sure that the US will once again engage vigorously in these negotiations and help lead the world toward a new era of global co-operation on climate change.

"Stopping climate change won't be easy. It won't happen overnight. But I promise you this. When I am president . . . any nation that's willing to join the cause of combating climate change will have an ally in the United States of America". Delay, he said, "is no longer an option".

Promising a "new chapter" on global warming, Obama repeated his pledge to invest $15 billion (€12 billion) a year in securing a "clean energy future" for the US, based on wind and solar power, "next generation biofuels", safe nuclear power plants and "clean coal technologies".

This would be underpinned by a federal "cap-and-trade" system for carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, with "strong annual targets that set us on a course to reduce emissions to their 1990 levels by 2020 and reduce them an additional 80 per cent by 2050".

Few believe that Obama's short-term target for the US is achievable. Even the EU, which sees itself as the global leader on climate change, has so far only pledged a 20 per cent cut in emissions by 2020, using the higher levels recorded in 2005 as its baseline.

What's really significant is that the incoming US administration sees no conflict between addressing climate change and dealing with the recession. Indeed, Obama said his green agenda will help to transform US industry "and steer our country out of this economic crisis".

It would do this, he told the US governors, "by generating five million new green jobs that pay well and can't be outsourced". And the clean energy future he forsees would also "help us reduce our dependence on foreign oil, making the United States more secure".

However, as Obama has said repeatedly, the US can only have one president at a time. And although Democrat members of Congress will be reporting back to him from Poznan, the US is officially represented by a delegation headed by oilman Harlan Watson.

Poznan marks the halfway point between the last UN climate change summit on the Indonesian island of Bali in December 2007 and the crucial conference in Copenhagen next December, when agreement is due to be reached on cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

With a view to developing a "shared vision for long-term co-operative action", delegates have spent the past week discussing an 82-page text tabled by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change secretariat to serve as a basis for negotiations.

This text is a distillation of an enormous range of ideas and position papers, running to more than 700 pages, which were submitted to the secretariat, and it is expected to be fine-tuned by officials and then by ministers during next week's "high-level segment".

It is, of course, in the nature of climate change talks that the thorny issues, such as setting specific targets, is left until the eleventh hour. Even within the EU, there are disagreements on how best to proceed, with some member states back-pedalling on key issues.

Poland is heavily reliant on coal for power generation and wants to ensure that its coal-fired plants aren't put out of business, or that the cost of upgrading them - with carbon capture and storage, for example - wouldn't mean a huge hike in electricity prices.

Two weeks ago, police had to intervene when coalminers clashed with Polish Greenpeace activists at the open-pit Jozwin mine, near Poznan.

Greenpeace is demanding that Polish energy policy should be revised to quit coal in favour of renewables and more energy efficiency.

But Konin, the coalmining company that operates Jozwin, has firm plans to develop a second open-pit mine nearby.

"We don't plan to scrap this project. Why should we?" a spokesman told Reuters news agency, saying the new mine would open in two or three years.

It's not just the Poles who are piling on the pressure. Heavy industry has been lobbying hard against EU proposals to impose an auctioning regime for carbon permits, fearing that this would make European manufacturers uncompetitive in the global marketplace.

The power generation sector also wants free allocation of permits, while big car manufacturers in Germany, Italy and France are lobbying for looser controls on CO2 emissions from cars - even though road transport is contributing an ever-rising share of the total.

Environment ministers from the 27 EU member states met in Brussels over the past two days in an effort to reach agreement on what has become known as the "20/20 package" - the goal of cutting overall emissions by 20 per cent (relative to 2005 levels) by 2020.

The French presidency has been pushing hard to finalise a deal before it hands over to the Czech Republic on January 1st. Moreover, EU leaders will be cajoled - and perhaps even browbeaten - by President Nicolas Sarkozy to sign off on it when they meet in Brussels next week.

The outcome of the Brussels summit will be eagerly awaited in Poznan, not least because it will either confirm Europe's leadership position on climate change or, unbelievable as this may seem, cede this role to the US, and give Barack Obama a chance to match his words with deeds.