Climate change conference hampered by U.S. political change

POZNAN, Poland — As ministers from 189 countries gather here to hammer out a new climate change treaty, progress is sorely hampered by the absence of one delegation: the team that will forge Barack Obama’s climate policy.

The U.S. president-elect has called climate change “a matter of urgency,” but his administration-in-waiting has not sent representatives to Poznan, where the United States is represented by the Bush administration. That has left this critical meeting in a bit of limbo, with many delegates saying they were waiting to size up the next administration’s environmental commitment before making bold moves of their own.

“It has affected the meeting in a fairly significant way,” said Gus Silva-Chavez, a policy expert at the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, who has been observing the closed negotiations. “A lot of people think: ‘this is not the time to put our cards on the table. Let’s wait for the new administration. Why agree to anything now?”‘

This problem is exaggerated by the fact that the European Union is struggling to finalize its own climate package — hampered by the global economic downturn — and so its delegates have been unusually quiet. In practice, that has meant little progress on anything except the basic decisions needed to keep the dream of a climate treaty alive.

“We have a sense of urgency but you don’t see any strong decisions being taking here,” said Elenita Dano, a member of the delegation from the Philippines. “Political developments in the U.S. and the EU are holding us hostage, and we have no choice but to wait.”

The negotiations are meant to culminate in a treaty in Copenhagen in December 2009, which will take effect in 2013 and replace the expiring Kyoto Protocol.

So far, Obama has outlined broad policies but provided few specifics or a timetable for implementing them. His team is hashing out various options.

His administration could propose a climate bill designed to quickly pass though the U.S. Congress with concrete short-term goals like improving energy efficiency and creating “green” jobs, or it could hold off a bit to craft a more comprehensive policy proposal with long-term emissions reductions charting a course decades into the future.

“The fear is this could become a Clinton health plan, trying to do too much too soon, and ending up with nothing,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House staffer, now with the National Commission on Energy Policy.

Even at the highest levels, officials in Poznan are awaiting results: “Another climate treaty without the U.S. doesn’t make a lot of sense,” said Yvo de Boer, head of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the sponsor of the meeting.

Still, the conference has achieved some important goals.

The delegates have agreed on a method for essentially paying countries and communities to preserve forests, through a system of carbon credits.

The delegates also are nearing agreement on a fund, conceptualized a year ago, to help developing countries adapt to climate change.

Talk of a climate-change unheaval was muted, since the meeting in Poznan was meant to be a midpoint in talks that would lead to a new treaty next year.

“Expectations for this meeting were pretty low, but we’re on track for a work plan covering the next year,” said Angela Anderson, director of the International Global Warming Campaign of the Pew Environment Group. “If the pace picks up we could get an agreement by Copenhagen.”

Delegates have been hammering out proposals for the past 10 days. On Thursday, various ministers arrive for two days of meetings to approve them.

Still, there were disturbing rumblings that industrialized nations were seeking to scale back emissions-reduction targets recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which suggested that rich countries should cut emissions by 25 to 40 percent by 2020 to avert disastrous warming. Countries like Italy have suggested that they might have a hard time meeting previous emissions-reduction goals in the current economic malaise.

In addition, a group of developing countries called the G-77 complained that their proposals for help fell on deaf ears. “We got no support from developed countries, whether in technology transfer or finances,” said Tasneem Essop, of the WWF South Africa.

Such hopes and frustrations underscore the pressure the new U.S. administration is likely to feel. Jake Schmidt of the National Resources Defense Council said, “Clearly one of the major stumbling blocks has been a lack of leadership at the U.S. level, and that’s about to change.”