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Climate Talks Bog Down--is That Reason To Worry?

Peter Baker reports that the climate talks in Italy this week made progress in a few areas, but hit a stalemate on the really hard questions:

[N]egotiators for the world’s 17 leading polluters dropped a proposal to cut global greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by midcentury, and emissions from the most advanced economies by 80 percent. But both the G-8 and the developing countries agreed to set a goal of stopping world temperatures from rising by more than 2 degrees Celsius from preindustrial levels. ...

In the end, people close to the talks said, the emerging powers refused to agree to the limits because they wanted industrial countries to commit to midterm goals in 2020 and to follow through on promises of financial and technological help in reducing emissions.

"They're saying, 'We just don't trust you guys,' " said Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group based in the United States. "It's the same gridlock we had last year when Bush was president."

To some extent, the developing countries have a valid gripe. Back at the 2007 U.N. climate conference in Bali, wealthy countries promised to offer up financial and technical aid to poorer countries for curbing emissions, reducing deforestation, and adapting to climate change. So far, nothing tangible has come of that. (Of course, those pledges were also made before the financial crisis struck—developed countries have so many problems at home that there's not much enthusiasm for boosting foreign aid right now.)

The big quagmire, meanwhile, is that the developing world wants to see very deep cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020 from the United States, Europe, and other wealthy nations. As Elizabeth Rosenthal has reported, countries like China, South Africa, and the Philippines have been demanding a 40 percent reduction below 1990 levels by 2020—far steeper than anything wealthy countries are contemplating. Here in the United States, the House climate bill would achieve, at best, a 17 percent cut below 1990 levels by 2020. Even the EU is only aiming for a 20 percent cut, though it'd be willing to ramp up to 30 percent in the context of a global treaty (even Europe has limits on how far it'll wander out on its own).

In any case, climate talks are far from dead, and the agreement on 2C is a good sign (the Bush administration had resisted that), but there are plenty of inauspicious signs lurking. No wonder the Obama administration has been trying to branch off from these multilateral forums to see if it can strike bilateral side deals with countries like China. The New York Times reports that European leaders are miffed at this approach, but it's honestly hard to see a better option for breaking the current impasse.

(Flickr photo credit: Munir)

--Bradford Plumer