A long-running tug of war between the industrialised and developing states over cutting carbon pollution is coming to a head, as world leaders start to gather in Copenhagen to pull together a new approach to fight global warming.
Limits on emissions from fossil fuels would have profound effects on the way energy is consumed and produced, a subject of particular interest to energy-exporting Gulf states. Although experts agree a final draft is unlikely to come out of the two-week summit, negotiators hope to reach a binding political agreement on the key issue of how to divide the burden of carbon emissions cuts globally without hindering development in poorer nations and bankrupting richer ones.
"These are the most difficult talks ever embarked upon by humanity," said Erik Solheim, Norway's environment minister. "The effects will be felt by the rice farmer in Sichuan in China, by Google headquarters in Seattle, or by the oil worker in Norway." Experts point to groundbreaking emissions pledges from the US and China, the world's two largest emitters, as the main factor that could end the impasse over carbon cuts.
But full consensus on the question of responsibility for cuts remains out of reach, events last week showed, with Australia's Senate rejecting a proposal to cut emissions, European officials calling for larger sacrifices from the rest of the world, and negotiators from developing states quietly pushing against core targets to reduce emissions by 2050. Rich countries are also divided over the responsibility for contributing an estimated US$10 billion (Dh36.73bn) in aid to developing countries to help them deploy clean sources of energy and adapt to the effects of climate change.
The climate summit begins against a backdrop of renewed controversy over the science of global warming, with climate change sceptics trumpeting a series of leaked e-mails from scientists to argue that the connection between human activity and the warming of the planet remains unproven. The US will promise to reduce emissions by 17 per cent by 2020 from 2005 levels, based on legislation approved this year by the House of Representatives. World leaders had assumed that the US would not offer a numerical target because legislation has yet to be voted on by the Senate.
On Friday, Robert Gibbs, the spokesman for the White House, confirmed that the US President Barack Obama would join world leaders on the last day of the summit. "There are still outstanding issues that must be negotiated for an agreement to be reached, but this decision reflects the president's commitment to doing all that he can to pursue a positive outcome," Mr Gibbs said. He added that the US would pay its "fair share" of financial aid to developing states, without elaborating.
The change in political climate in the US represented a turning point for Copenhagen's fortunes, and lay at the heart of differences between the new climate regime and the expiring Kyoto treaty on global warming, said Steve Howard, the chief executive of the Climate Group, a major lobbying organisation that works with governments and business. "We previously had a US president who was hostile to the issue until the very last days of his presidency," Mr Howard said. "Kyoto was legally binding but wasn't politically binding in some ways, whereas the language that Obama and others have used, and we've used, is for a politically binding treaty."
Mr Obama's pledge was made possible, in part, by a strong commitment from China to reduce the carbon intensity of its economy. Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, pledged to reduce carbon emissions associated with each unit of GDP by between 40 per cent and 45 per cent by 2020 from its levels in 2005. Although total emissions from the country will continue to grow, the target will require increases in energy efficiency and a shift away from dirty coal towards using more natural gas, renewable and nuclear energy.
Estimates by professors at People's University in China found that the commitments will require $30bn in investment a year during the next decade, the China Daily reported Friday. "China's per capita emissions are one fifth of the US so they shouldn't take an absolute reductions target. It's inappropriate for their level of development," Mr Howard said. "This is the quid pro quo: if the US can put something meaningful on the table that China thinks is OK, then China is ready to put the right level of commitments forward."
Analysts said China's commitment was the key factor that also drove India last week to announce it would reduce the carbon intensity of its economy by between 20 per cent and 25 per cent by 2020. The country's government had previously resisted a formal target. Yvo de Boer, the top UN climate change official, was optimistic on Friday that the number of commitments would bolster the prospects for agreement at Copenhagen.
"We have a full house in terms of targets from industrialised countries and indications from major developing countries of what they intend to do," Mr de Boer said. But events last week showed negotiators will still need to cover a lot of ground to reach a consensus. Stavros Dimas, the EU environment commissioner, said in a clear reference to the US and Australia that some industrialised countries had failed to offer sufficient targets.
"The aggregate offers from developed countries still fall well short of the level of ambition needed, so I urge those countries with weak targets to improve them," Mr Dimas told Agence France-Presse on Wednesday. Analysts note that the US pledge to cut emissions by 17 per cent from 2005 levels amounts to only 3 per cent when compared with 1990 levels, the benchmark used by the UN and most other countries.
Mr Dimas's comments came as the Australian Senate voted against a proposal to set up a carbon trading system, dealing a defeat to Kevin Rudd, the prime minister. The bill would have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by between 5 per cent and 15 per cent from 2000 levels by 2020. But the biggest challenge to the success of Copenhagen came quietly last week, in the form of reports from European diplomats that China, India, Brazil and South Africa had rejected long-term global targets for reducing emissions in a draft text.
Diplomats said the major developing states opposed proposals that global emissions would peak by 2020 and halve by 2050. A top Indian delegate said on Friday that governments in developing countries have been resisting international supervision of their climate mitigation strategies. The developing states want industrialised countries to continue to bear the burden of cuts over the next four decades, Alf Wills, the South African climate change negotiator, told Reuters.
"We cannot agree to the 50/50 [halving emissions by 2050] because it implies that - the remaining [cuts] must be done by developing countries," Mr Wills said. * with agencies email@example.com