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Why the Senate Delay Won't Kill off Global Climate Talks

As the odds that the Senate will pass a climate bill this year grow dim, the major question is what this means for the climate talks at Copenhagen in December. It's now looking increasingly unlikely that world leaders will be able to finish up a successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol by the end of 2009, and some U.N. officials are already lowering expectations. "Copenhagen has to be viewed as a very important step," said U.N. Development Chief Helen Clark this week. "Would it be overoptimistic to say that it would be the final one? Of course. … I think the conference will be positive but it won't dot every 'i' and cross every 't'."

Nevertheless, there's reason to think Copenhagen could still be a success. Back in March, Yvo de Boer, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, outlined his main priorities short of a finalized treaty. The talks, he said, needed to deliver clarity on near-term emissions cuts for both industrialized and developing countries, while industrialized countries needed to devote significant resources to help poorer nations invest in clean-energy tech and adapt to climate change. If those points, at least, could get hammered out, de Boer argued, "we have a robust architecture for a resounding response to climate change at the international level."

But can those goals be met? Much depends on what U.S. climate negotiators can achieve without having a signed climate bill in their back pockets. And, so far, there's been a surprising amount of progress—in July, the United States inked an agreement on greater cooperation with China over investing in clean-energy tech. The two nations are also hashing out an agreement to reduce emissions from automobiles. If these bilateral talks continue, it will increase the chances for a successful outcome at Copenhagen.

Meanwhile, in early July, G-8 leaders agreed that they should limit warming to no more than 2°C over preindustrial levels—a goal that 124 countries have agreed to, and which is endorsed in the House climate bill. De Boer has said he believes an official 2°C commitment is possible in Copenhagen, which would be another significant outcome. (Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has embraced an even more ambitious target of limiting carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million, though de Boer has said he doesn't think there's "a hope in hell" of world leaders agreeing to that. )

All told, the Senate delay is certainly a setback for global talks—since it's unlikely that the world will agree to a final climate treaty until after the United States has passed its own domestic legislation. But it's hardly a deal-breaker. If the Copenhagen talks can end with clarity on goals for emissions as well as how to help developing countries, it could still be a hugely important step. And, at that point, the key goal will be to make sure that talks continue into 2010 with follow-up meetings and new deadlines, so that the world stays on track for completing a deal.

(Flickr photo credit: Greenpeace)