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What to Expect from the UN Climate-Change Summit

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By Bryan Walsh, Time

There was no shortage of questions surrounding this year's United Nations climate-change summit, which began Dec. 1 in Poznan, Poland. The most obvious: Where was everyone going to stay? Only the fifth-largest city in the sixth-largest country in Europe, Poznan is a curious choice to host one of the most important international conferences of the year, with more than 10,000 delegates, scientists, activists and journalists meeting to map out the future of global climate change action.

That being said, the Poznan summit is only a waypoint on the road to negotiating a new Kyoto Protocol; it's not the final event. Kyoto, which mandated greenhouse-gas reductions for developed nations (except the U.S., which never ratified the treaty), will expire in 2012. And last year, at the contentious Bali summit, delegates managed to paper over disputes — including those among the U.S., which under the Bush Administration has generally played the spoiler at these talks; the European Union, which has routinely argued for the most stringent carbon reductions; and the big developing nations, like India and China, which say climate change is the fault of rich nations and have been generally reluctant to take on any carbon-cutting obligations — long enough to lay down a rough outline of how negotiations, including the talks at Poznan, should proceed. The end goal is an actual agreement at the 2009 summit in Copenhagen, which has been cast as a de facto deadline for a new, hopefully more globally comprehensive Kyoto Protocol.

So, with the big deadline another year off and the U.S. in the midst of a leadership vacuum on climate change (see below), progress out of Poznan will likely be slow and more about process than measurable targets. "Poznan was never going to be a conference where a spectacular outcome was to be expected," said French climate ambassador Brice Lalonde at the summit. "We hope for a spectacular outcome in Copenhagen next year. You can't expect a mouse to give birth to a mountain — it will only give birth to a mouse." (Translation: Small town, small summit, small expectations.)

Environment ministers will arrive in Poznan on Dec. 11 — when the real work will take place. Here are the critical questions that need to be answered during the last two days of the meeting.

1. Where is Barack Obama?

The single most important environmental event of the year was Barack Obama's election to the U.S. presidency. Greens hope that Obama will fulfill pledges to adopt caps on carbon emissions at home — a necessity, if the U.S. is ever going to lead globally on climate change. But while the thought of President Obama has environmentalists feeling warm around the world, the cold logic of the Inaugural schedule means that President George W. Bush's negotiators are still in charge at Poznan. While his team no longer has the power to bring talks to a standstill, as it has in past years (other countries are now treating the Bush team like an annoying houseguest that has overstayed his welcome), Obama can't be anything but vague for now. Although he sent observers to the summit, many greens wish he had deployed a high-level representative — like Vice President–elect Joseph Biden — to focus the world's attention on Poznan. As it is, the U.S. vacuum is the perfect excuse to justify the generally slow progress of the talks. Yet once Obama takes over on Jan. 20, he'll have less than a year to get ready for Copenhagen. That's nothing in U.N. negotiation time.

2. Will the Europeans get wobbly?

European nations have a deserved reputation as the world's greenest, with firm carbon caps and a commitment to renewable energy. But that's not the whole story. Eastern European nations, like summit host Poland, remain dependent on heavy industries and polluting power like coal. And lately, given the severe economic downturn, Europe has edged away from its leadership on climate change. On Dec. 11, even as the U.N. summit has begun to heat up, the E.U. will meet in Brussels to vote on its ambitious 20-20-20 plan, which aims to reduce greenhouse gases continent-wide 20% by 2020, while increasing renewable power 20% and reducing overall energy consumption 20%. Many Western European nations like France, which is currently the head of the E.U., favor the measure, but newer, poorer countries like Poland — and big industrial powers like Germany — are doubtful. If the E.U. can't present a unified front at Brussels, it won't be able to do so in Poznan. "You can see the U.S. and China moving [on climate change]," said Nicholas Stern, a leading British climate economist, at Poznan. "We will destroy or undermine that movement if we go flaky in Europe now."

3. Will we save the trees?

One of the real accomplishments of last year's U.N. summit in Bali was an agreement to move forward on avoided deforestation, a system that would pay rain-forest nations to protect their trees in exchange for carbon credits. (Deforestation is responsible for at least 20% of global carbon emissions.) But at Poznan, negotiations have gotten muddy. Thus far, no one can agree on what the rights of indigenous people who actually live among the trees should be in a forestry carbon market, while Brazil — home to 40% of the world's remaining rain forests — seems against the entire idea of avoided deforestation. (Brazil favors a plan that would have rich countries contribute to a global fund that would work to prevent deforestation, instead of using the carbon market.) There are legitimate criticisms of avoided deforestation — but something firm on forestry needs to come out of Poznan.

4. Is there any hope at all?

The U.N. climate-change negotiations can be a depressing experience — maximum rhetoric expended on minimum accomplishment. In Poznan the atmosphere seems even bleaker. For one thing, economic catastrophe has made it harder for leaders to justify cutting carbon. A recent study by the Government Accounting Office (GAO), the independent investigative arm of Congress, sharply criticized the Clean Development Mechanism, the U.N. body that oversees the Kyoto Protocol's carbon-trading practices. The GAO found that carbon offsets — whereby a company in a rich nation pays for a carbon-reducing project elsewhere in lieu of cutting emissions itself — were at best a "temporary solution," not the answer to climate change. A new study by the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the University of Colorado found that there was little evidence that developing nations would ever be able to afford to reduce their carbon emissions at the rate scientists believe is needed to avert dangerous climate change. (Rich nations are another matter, but it is developing nations like China and India that will be responsible for the bulk of future carbon emissions.) The gap between the world's ambitious goals to cut carbon emissions in half by midcentury and the reality of where it is now seems to grow every day.

So, will Poznan be a waste? No — provided we put it in the right perspective. Worldwide, our way of life is so wedded to carbon that simply legislating greenhouse-gas reductions may not be possible — as rich nations like Japan, which have struggled to meet their Kyoto obligations, have discovered. Meaningful reductions will require technological advances on energy that have yet to be developed, and the U.N. can't force that process. But it can work to focus the world's attention on climate change and help map out the policy framework — including on issues like tropical deforestation — that will speed the broader social, economic and technological changes that will eventually make a real difference.


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