At Global Climate Change Talks, Optimistic Eyes Look Ahead to an Obama Administration

The president-elect is not at the talks, but many hope he will reverse Bush's record on carbon limits.

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At the international climate change talks now underway in Poznan, Poland, three themes are dominating the discussion: money, emissions targets, and Barack Obama.

The talks, which started Monday and will continue through the end of next week, mark the halfway point of a two-year process, culminating in December 2009 in Copenhagen, to draft a new climate change treaty to replace the beleaguered Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.

By anyone's standard, writing a new treaty on climate change—and getting countries to agree upon and follow its mandates—will be a massive undertaking. So far, the tenor of the Poznan discussions suggest some new sense of optimism in the international community despite the huge difficulties ahead.

Though much of the work being done in Poznan is technical in nature, involving arcane discussions about how to achieve greenhouse gas emissions cuts and how to finance them, the tone of the conference, attendees say, is being shaped to a significant degree by a man who isn't even present: President-elect Obama.

"You could say the bridegroom is sitting and expectantly awaiting the arrival of the bride," says Henry Derwent, president and CEO of the International Emissions Trading Association, which has one of the largest delegations in Poznan. "There is a certain amount of nervousness about what the U.S. conditions will be" for a new treaty.

In recent weeks, as he did in the campaign, Obama has laid out much more stringent plans for cutting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions than those advocated by President Bush and former presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, as well as many in Congress. Obama's statements have been widely applauded by foreign leaders frustrated with the recalcitrant attitude of the Bush administration, which walked away from the Kyoto Protocol immediately upon taking office in 2001.

But even Obama's proposed targets—to cut U.S. emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and to reduce them 80 percent more by 2050—are being criticized in Poznan by some developing countries, particularly India and China, as being too little, underscoring the significant rift between developed countries and developing countries.

The first week of negotiations at the Poznan talks, which is being attended by 11,000 people from 190 countries, has brought out some of these concerns. Poorer countries have asked richer countries to commit tens (if not hundreds) of billions of dollars per year to help finance their efforts to control emissions. Since industrialized countries largely created the problem, they argue, it should be industrialized countries that bear the burden of cleaning up the problem.

Earlier this week, the United Nations said that developing countries will need $130 billion a year in support to reduce their emissions—more than six times what they currently receive. Such sweeping requests, however, are colliding with concerns of industrialized nations about the global economy. Ministers of the European Union, in a separate conference this week, fractured over climate-change plans, with some countries, like Italy, saying that stringent reductions may be too costly to undertake because of the economic crisis.

As the Poznan conference organizers point out, the purpose of the talks is not to reach final agreement on emissions levels or dollar amounts. Those objectives, they hope, will be achieved in Copenhagen. But by the time the conference ends next week, they hope to have a "working blueprint" that will guide their efforts over the next year.

What that means in practice, says David Waskow, Oxfam America climate change program director, is that organizers have solicited and received hundreds of pages of submissions for what should go in the final treaty, and participants are now working to boil them down. Some of these negotiations take place in large groups; others are restricted to representatives of select countries. "The knotty issues get taken completely behind closed doors," Waskow says. "There they go into much more heavy-duty negotiating."