November 25, 2008

Economic Woes Will Likely Affect UN Climate Talks

The slow economy is sure to test the world's resolve to do more to fight global warming at 190-nation talks in Poland next week, but the election of Barack Obama is expected to be a positive.

A thorough progress report for the two-year push to work out a sweeping new U.N. climate treaty by the end of 2009 will be the major topic of discussion during the December 1-12 meeting of 8,000 delegates in Poznan, Poland.

Numerous countries have pledged to fight global warming despite fears of deep recession, but, so far, few have come up with deep cuts in emissions that the U.N. Climate Panel says are needed to avoid the worst of what warming has in store.

Yvo de Boer, head of the U.N. Climate Change Secretariat, said he expects the economic crisis to have an effect on resolve.

"Lower oil prices will mean less of an incentive to invest in renewables."

"The minute the financial crisis struck, industries said 'this makes it difficult to take on expensive targets'," he added.

The largest U.S. wind power operator, FPL Group, has slashed planned 2009 spending by 25 percent to $5.3 billion. Shares in China's Suntech Power Holdings, the world's largest solar module maker, fell to an all-time low last week, down more than 90 percent in 2009.

However, Obama's election is reason for optimism in many nations, as numerous U.S. allies accused President George W. Bush of doing too little to diversify away from fossil fuels. China and the United States are the top greenhouse gas emitters.

President-elect Obama has promised to "engage vigorously" in climate change talks once he is president and plans a costly stimulus package to revive the economy, including green jobs.

"There are positive influences -- Obama has got elected and he has said that the current economic crisis is not going to impair his resolve to tackle the problem of climate change," said Rajendra Pachauri, head of the U.N. Climate Panel.

Already, Obama has vowed to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions back to 1990 levels by 2020 -- Bush had foreseen a peak only in 2025 -- and by 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

But Obama might be able to come up with even more, Pachauri said.

According to the U.N. panel, rich nations need to cut by 25-40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 to keep temperatures below what some nations see as a "dangerous" 2 Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) rise.

Pachauri suggested that maybe this is just the beginning of what to expect from Obama.

Pachauri's panel said it would cost less than 0.12 percent of global gross domestic product every year until 2030 to avert the worst of climate change.

Angela Anderson, director of the Pew Environment Group's global warming campaign, said the economic downturn means countries are going to have all kinds of excuses to avoid making progress. "So it (Poznan) will be a test," she said.

The panel at Poznan will mostly review progress and discuss new ideas such as new clean technology for developing nations such as China and India, ways to reward tropical nations for slowing deforestation or help poor countries adapt to climate change.

Also a topic of discussion will be an 86-page text of ideas for a new treaty, but hard decisions will wait for 2009. Environment ministers from 100 nations will attend the final two days.

The European Union may be distracted by the run-up to a December 11-12 summit at which leaders will try to agree details of a plan to cut emissions by 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Both Italy and Poland are among those worried about costs.

"The days are gone when the EU can hide behind the United States and still look good," said Jennifer Morgan, of the E3G environmental think-tank.