Norway unveiled an aggressive new emissions target yesterday, a move that environmental groups acknowledged is unlikely to prod new U.S. action but that many described as one of the few positive developments in a contentious, down-to-the-wire negotiating session.
The announcement of a 40 percent reduction goal from the oil-rich Scandanavian country came as nations wrapped up a difficult two weeks of U.N. climate talks in Bangkok. The final days were marked with tension as developing nations walked out of a meeting, accusing the United States of trying to "destroy" the 1997 Kyoto Protocol upon which talks for a new global treaty had been based.
"The European Union, Australia, Japan, the rest of the developed countries need to rise up to the challenge rather than race to the bottom with the United States," said Lumumba Di-Aping, the Sudanese chairman of the G-77.
As nations try to craft a new international agreement to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, the fight over what legal form the document will take has emerged as a technical but critical point.
Developing nations insist that nations are negotiating a second commitment period to the Kyoto Protocol, the first part of which ends in 2012. Under the set of rules outlined in that 12-year-old agreement, industrialized countries must slash their CO2 emissions, but developing nations -- even fast-growing ones like China and India -- are under no such obligation.
The United States never became a party to Kyoto, largely because of that omission. Since President Obama took office in January, administration officials have pledged to become part of a new international agreement. But they have also consistently called for a new deal to replace Kyoto. America's terms: Major developing nations must make legally binding commitments to temper their own global warming pollution.
In Bangkok this week, U.S. officials openly floated the idea of a new system of national climate plans. Meanwhile, State Department deputy climate envoy Jonathan Pershing explicitly said Kyoto should be scrapped.
U.S. accused of sabotaging Kyoto pact
"We are not going to be part of an agreement that we cannot meet," he told reporters. "Things have changed since Kyoto. Where countries were in 1990 and today is very different. We cannot be stuck with an agreement 20 years old. We want action from all countries."
The European Union backed the United States in its position, and G-77 countries walked out of a meeting, with some leaders charging America with trying to scuttle the climate talks.
Remi Moncel, a climate program associate with the World Resources Institute think tank, said developing countries remain unsure whether the new formula the United States is floating will still be legally binding for developed nations. They also worry about losing the principle enshrined in Kyoto that says poor countries' rights to development should not be hampered by climate change commitments.
"It was sort of assumed by developing countries that the Kyoto Protocol would be maintained for all developed countries, and something would be worked out for the United States," Moncel said. "Developing countries don't want to be put in the same legal instrument that is used for developed countries."
Despite significant domestic action in recent months by China, India, Brazil and others, the international negotiating positions of developing countries remains unchanged: Industrialized nations caused climate change, and they should be the ones to fix it.
"Developing countries are prepared to do their fair share as a contribution to the global effort. However, the reality that we face is that the cause of the fundamental emissions which result in global warming are to a large extent the responsibility ... of developed countries," Alf Wills, South Africa's top climate negotiator, said at a press conference.
'A frustrating situation for everybody'
Jennifer Haverkamp, a senior counsel at the Environmental Defense Fund, called it a "frustrating situation for everybody," and also noted that the United States has made some constructive proposals on technology and financing to help developing countries prepare for climate impacts.
"You're at a point in the negotiatings where you see a lot of posturing," Haverkamp said.
"The U.S. has hinted at this type of position before, and now it's becoming more clear. That's part of the cause for all the debate," added Moncel.
Meanwhile, they and other environmental activists lauded Norway's pledge. Moncel called it a gust of "fresh air" into the climate talks.
Norway, which gets most of its energy from clean hydroelectric power, previously had committed unconditionally to slashing emissions 30 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Its new pledge is to cut greenhouse gas output by 40 percent if an international agreement is reached in Copenhagen this December. The cut is in line with what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said is needed for nations to keep warming to 2 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels.
Hanne Bjurstrøm, leading Norway's negotiating team, told E&E that roughly two-thirds of the cuts would be made domestically, with the remaining cuts likely coming from international offsets.
"It will increase the pressure to some extent" on other developed countries to act more aggressively, Bjurstrøm said. But, she also noted, "you shouldn't exaggerate that, because we are a very small country and a rich country."