If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.



A Climate of Change

Diplomats begin working out new global treaty to curb greenhouse gas emissions

by Cheryl Hogue
April 6, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 14

Credit: IISD/Earth Negotiations Bulletin
The negotiations are taking place in Bonn under the auspices of a 1992 UN climate-change agreement.
Credit: IISD/Earth Negotiations Bulletin
The negotiations are taking place in Bonn under the auspices of a 1992 UN climate-change agreement.

NEGOTIATORS FROM around the world have rolled up their sleeves and are starting to forge a new global agreement on climate change. The accord, which they hope to finish by the end of the year, would require the U.S. and other industrialized countries to make substantial cuts in their greenhouse gas emissions during the next decade. And unlike previous climate treaties, the new agreement is expected to include some sort of emissions goals for China, India, and other major developing countries.

The new treaty would supersede the 1997 Kyoto protocol. That treaty, which the U.S. never adopted, calls for industrialized countries to reduce their collective emissions to 5.2% below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012.

The first round of United Nations-sponsored talks on the new climate accord started on March 29 and will run through April 8 in Bonn, Germany. More negotiations are scheduled in June and in the fall, and they are expected to culminate in December at a meeting in Copenhagen.

As a prelude to the negotiations in Bonn, industrialized countries in recent months laid out what they are willing to do about their greenhouse gas emissions. For instance, President Barack Obama in February called for U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to be 14% below 2005 levels by 2020 and approximately 83% below 2005 levels by 2050.

The European Union, which has been cutting emissions under the Kyoto protocol, announced this past December its plan to ratchet back greenhouse gas releases at least 20% below 1990 levels by 2020 and to generate 20% of its energy from renewable resources by 2020. In addition, the EU signaled its willingness to do more, depending on what its major industrialized allies are willing to commit to. The EU said it would scale-up its emissions reduction to as much as 30% under the new global climate-change agreement if other industrialized countries make comparable efforts.

Japan, meanwhile, plans to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 60 to 80% by 2050. In June, Japan is expected to announce its goals for cutting emissions over the next decade.

Large developing countries have also put forth policy ideas for cutting their domestic emissions, points out Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director at the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council. China recently issued a white paper indicating it will lower its energy intensity, which is a measure that relates energy use to a nation's gross national product. Mexico set a goal to reduce its emissions to 50% below 2000 levels by 2050. And Brazil said it would reduce deforestation rates in the Amazon region by 70% over the next decade. Deforestation is the main source of Brazil's greenhouse gas emissions.

EU Perspective
Credit: Cheryl Hogue/C&EN
Carlgren (from left), BursÍk, and Dimas discuss prospectsfor a new climate accord in Washington, D.C., last month.
Credit: Cheryl Hogue/C&EN
Carlgren (from left), BursÍk, and Dimas discuss prospectsfor a new climate accord in Washington, D.C., last month.

Although this set the stage for the negotiations, the big challenge in this year's climate talks is convincing the U.S. and China—which together account for nearly half of the world's greenhouse gas releases—to become part of the new global treaty. For years, key members of the U.S. Congress have said they will not accept a global climate treaty that doesn't include limits on China's emissions. Meanwhile, China is not likely to accept a global treaty unless the U.S., which for years was the world's leading emitter of greenhouse gases, makes reductions first.

Martin BursÍk, deputy prime minister and environment minister of the Czech Republic, sees hope for convincing the Chinese to limit emissions under the new climate deal. BursÍk is leading the EU's Council of Environment Ministers during the Czech Republic's six-month presidency of the EU, which runs through June. He has met with Chinese officials, and he believes they are waiting for industrialized countries, including the U.S., to commit to significant emission curbs in the near term, around 2020, before agreeing to their emissions targets over the long term, to about 2050.

But breaking the U.S.-China deadlock isn't the only challenge for this year's talks. Negotiators recognize the importance of getting all large, fast-growing developing countries, especially coal-dependent ones such as India and China, to limit their greenhouse gas emissions to some degree. Convincing these nations to do so will require commitments by the entire industrialized world to cut its emissions significantly first, says Andreas Carlgren, environment minister of Sweden. Carlgren is a key player in the climate treaty talks, as Sweden takes over the EU presidency in July and will maintain this role through the Copenhagen meeting.

Adding to the complexity, Japan is indicating that it won't agree to a new climate treaty if it doesn't include commitments for cuts to greenhouse gas emissions by the world's largest emitters, namely the U.S. and China.

Because the U.S. did not join it, the Kyoto protocol imposed emission cuts on industrialized countries responsible for less than a third of worldwide releases of greenhouse gases, says Ambassador Shinsuke Sugiyama, director-general for global issues at Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "My government is determined not to repeat that," Sugiyama says. All major emitters of greenhouse gases, industrialized and developing countries alike, need to join in the new agreement and "become responsible partners," he adds.

A Chinese official, meanwhile, is suggesting that countries that consume the products his country exports should take responsibility for greenhouse emissions involved in their manufacture. Li Gao, director of the climate-change department at China's National Development & Reform Commission, says 15 to 25% of his country's emissions come from products it makes and ships abroad. That portion of China's emissions, he says, "should not be taken by us." To make a new climate-change treaty "a fair agreement," Li says, "responsibility should be taken by consumers, not producers."

Li's suggestion provoked firm responses.

If the EU took responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions from the production of imported goods, it would need authority over those emissions in return, says Artur Runge-Metzger, head of climate-change strategy and international negotiations for the European Commission. "We would want then to have jurisdiction and legislative powers in order to control and limit those emissions," he explains.

"The producers of the emissions are the only ones that can take the steps and apply the technologies that will actually result in emission reductions," says Jay Timmons, executive vice president for the National Association of Manufacturers, the largest U.S. industrial trade group.

Another dynamic of the climate negotiations involves the developing world wanting more from industrialized nations than just to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

"Developing countries expect industrialized countries to help them accelerate deployment of clean technologies so they can reduce their emissions as their economies continue to grow," says Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the science-based nonprofit group Union of Concerned Scientists. "Developing nations also will ask industrialized countries for a lot more financial assistance to help them adapt to the inevitable changes caused by global warming," such as rising sea level and altered precipitation patterns, Meyer says. Schmidt of the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council says the Obama Administration could help further the negotiations by suggesting how the U.S. plans to provide this sort of help to developing countries under the new climate treaty.

As the talks began in Bonn, Congress gave a political boost to the UN negotiations. Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who chairs two energy and climate panels in the House of Representatives, introduced draft legislation on climate change (C&EN, April 6, page 6). Markey downplays the move, saying the draft is not "anything other than the beginning of the discussion with members of Congress with regard to what a final piece of legislation should look like."

But it still signals to the international negotiations that the U.S. is getting serious about trimming its greenhouse gas emissions, Meyer says. It provides greater clarity about the emissions policies the U.S. is considering and demonstrates that major congressional leaders are backing action to combat climate change.

Markey says he and Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, will begin work in earnest on a climate-change bill starting in late April. Waxman has pledged to move the bill through his committee by the end of May.

House passage of the bill in 2009 would definitely sway the climate talks, says European Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas. "A vote in the House will be a very powerful signal," that the U.S. is serious about addressing climate change, he says.

Todd Stern, U.S. special envoy for climate change, says that if Congress does not pass the legislation before the Copenhagen meeting, the new treaty will "need to accommodate that." Stern, however, did not expand on what that might mean for the talks.

Eileen Claussen, president of the nonprofit Pew Center on Global Climate Change, says although the House may pass a comprehensive climate bill by December, the Senate is unlikely to complete debate on the legislation until next year. She predicts that negotiators will come up with an interim agreement in Copenhagen and finish a final treaty after the Senate passes the bill in 2010.

Much remains to be done before the negotiators finish their work. Yvo de Boer, the UN's top official on climate change, expresses hope that countries can hammer out a new climate deal that will earn acceptance by the Obama Administration—and perhaps Congress as well.

If the agreement includes "solid engagement by developing countries," de Boer says, "then I see no reason why the U.S. should not want to be part of that."


This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.