'Reasonable' Progress on Climate Change Talks but Long Road Ahead, Says U.N. Official

A key United Nations official calls for more political engagement in global effort to reduce emissions.

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Two weeks of high-level talks in Poland yielded "reasonable" progress toward a new climate-change treaty, the United Nations' top climate-change official said this weekend, but the negotiations left many divisions between poor countries and rich countries unresolved, signaling a tough road ahead as officials work to reach a new agreement on greenhouse gas emissions by the end of 2009.

"This was a working conference—it wasn't intended to reach specific emissions marks," Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, said in an interview this weekend at the end of the talks. "It adopted a number of technical decisions. The progress was reasonable, but it didn't show the kind of political engagement that will be needed" in 2009.

Ministers and representatives from 189 countries convened in Poznan, Poland, over the past two weeks for negotiations toward a new climate treaty, which they hope to complete in December 2009 at a conference in Copenhagen. If enacted, the new treaty will replace the Kyoto Protocol, which was passed in 1997 but never ratified by the United States.

The final days of the talks in Poznan, de Boer says, saw agreement on some important technical issues. Poorer countries, for example, won access to a fund set up last year to help them respond to climate change problems, and officials established guidelines to limit deforestation, which is responsible for 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. There were also a handful of pledges from developing countries, including Mexico and Brazil, to undertake steep emissions cuts.

But broader questions—including the degree to which developed countries will be willing to cut their emissions and help finance developing countries' efforts to do the same—largely remain unanswered, bogged down by economic uncertainties around the globe and the still vague priorities of the incoming Obama administration.

Some observers, in fact, have speculated recently that achieving a comprehensive treaty on global emissions cuts in Copenhagen is asking for too much. Others, like David Waskow, climate change program director for nonprofit aid group Oxfam America, said the Poznan talks were "disappointing" but felt that enough happened to keep open the possibility of a good treaty by the end of 2009.

Asked if organizers have changed their expectations for Copenhagen, de Boer said, "No, we are not looking at something different. We are on track, but there is an incredible amount of work that needs to be done."

Former Vice President Al Gore, appearing in Poznan on Friday, called upon leaders and officials to meet several times in the next few months to continue their work. De Boer echoed the sentiment. "I would agree with him 100 percent," he said.

Much of the international community's focus, in fact, is already turning to President-elect Barack Obama, who has promised strong and quick action on climate-change matters. Such action, however, appears most likely to come first in the form of clean-energy legislation. A bill capping greenhouse gas emissions may not come until 2010 or 2011.

Asked how the Obama administration should be brought into international negotiations, de Boer said, "I don't think Obama needs to be brought in, because he has brought himself in already. He has said he is committed to this process by putting ambitious domestic policies in place and [rejoining] international negotiations. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon already has had several very considerable conversations with him."

Noting the impact of the economy on the Poznan talks, de Boer said, "What I find encouraging is that, both in Europe and in the United States, renewable energy—that is, doing something about a clean-energy future—is very much at the heart of the economic recovery process."