Major setback to possibility of climate change deal


Asia-Pacific leaders say it will not be possible to reach a climate change deal ahead of the UN conference in Copenhagen.

US president Barack Obama and other world leaders agreed in Singapore today that next month's much-anticipated climate change summit will be merely a way station, not the once hoped-for end point, in the search for a worldwide global warming treaty.

The United States is the main obstacle to concluding an ambitious agreement at the Copenhagen meeting on climate change next month, French Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo said today.

Speaking after world leaders meeting in Singapore said it was unrealistic to expect binding targets to be negotiated by the time the meeting starts on December 7th, Mr Borloo said Washington was posing the biggest difficulty.

"The problem is the United States, there's no doubt about that," Mr Borloo told Reuters in an interview.

"It's the world's number one power, the biggest emitter (of greenhouse gases), the biggest per capita emitter and it's saying 'I'd like to but I can't'. That's the issue," he said.

Mr Borloo's comments follow a joint declaration by President Nicolas Sarkozy and his Brazilian counterpart Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva yesterday, aimed at committing rich countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent from 1990 levels by 2050.

Mr Borloo said France was looking at an option that would allow countries that had not signed up to the Kyoto protocol, including the United States some leeway, possibly including allowing it an extra delay of some years to meet targets.

The 192-nation climate conference beginning in three weeks in Copenhagen had originally been intended to produce a new global climate-change treaty. Hopes for that have dimmed lately.

But comments by Mr Obama and fellow leaders at a hastily arranged breakfast meeting on the sidelines of a two-day Asia-Pacific summit served to put the final nail in any remaining expectations for the December summit.

"There was an assessment by the leaders that it is unrealistic to expect a full internationally, legally binding agreement could be negotiated between now and Copenhagen which starts in 22 days," said Michael Froman, President Obama's deputy national security adviser for international economic matters.

The prime minister of Denmark, Lars Loekke Rasmussen, the UN-sponsored climate conference's chairman, flew overnight to Singapore to present a proposal to the leaders to instead make the Copenhagen goal a matter of crafting a "politically binding" agreement, in hopes of rescuing some future for the struggling process.

A fully binding legal agreement would be left to a second meeting next year in Mexico City, Mr Froman said.

President Obama backed the approach, cautioning the group not to let the "perfect be the enemy of the good," Froman said. Addressing the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum later, President Obama talked of the need to limit greenhouse-gas emissions "in Copenhagen and beyond."

Mr Froman said the Danish proposal would call for Copenhagen to produce "operational impact," but he did not explain how that would work or to what it would apply.

A major bill dealing with energy and climate in the US, a domestic priority of President Obama's, is bogged down in the US Senate with scant hope it would be completed by next month, giving the American president little to show in Copenhagen.

Environmental lobby group WWF voiced disappointment at the latest developments.

"At APEC, there was far too much talk about delay, and what won't be accomplished in Copenhagen," spokesperson Diane McFadzien said in a statement. "This does not look like a smart strategy to win the fight against climate change."

"In Copenhagen, governments need to create a legally binding framework with an amended Kyoto Protocol and a new Copenhagen Protocol. Legally binding is the only thing that will do if we want to see real action to save the planet."

Mr Rasmussen said a two-step approach would not mean a "partial" agreement in Copenhagen and insisted that it would be binding.

However, analysts said a new deadline could slip if Washington's political will to agree on emissions targets and carbon cap-and-trade fades, which would be a particular risk if the US economic recovery falters.

There is also a risk of growing frustration from developing countries which accuse rich nations of not doing enough to fight climate or help poorer states adapt to its impacts.

President Obama arrived late last night in Singapore for the annual 21-nation APEC summit that had begun without him early that morning. In remarks to the group today, Mr Obama reached out by announcing that he would host the 2011 gathering in his native Hawaii.

But on trade - the subject of most interest to rapidly growing, commerce-happy East and Southeast Asia - the US president had a mixed message. He said the US would engage with nations in a Trans Pacific free-trade partnership to shape a new regional agreement, a move seen as crucial to creating a possible Asia-Pacific free trade zone.

But he said the pact must have broad-based membership and "the high standards worthy of a 21st century trade agreement." He also sounded a sterner note, cautioning that Asia's export-led growth must give way to more balanced strategies.

His chief focus, though, was more on side meetings, including one later today with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev where he hoped to nudge forward a major new arms-control pact. The two nations are in talks on a successor to a Cold War-era agreement that expires in December.

Obama and Medvedev agreed in April to reach a new nuclear arms reduction treaty to replace and expand upon the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty before it expires on December 5th. Later, in Moscow in July, they agreed further to cut the number of nuclear warheads each nation possesses to between 1,500 and 1,675 within seven years.

US officials say the two nations now have agreed on the broad outlines of a new treaty, which might be signed during Obama's travels to Europe in early December to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.

Mr Obama also was sitting down with Indonesia's Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, president of the world's largest Muslim nation and Obama's home as a boy.