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Top U.N. scientist laments U.S. pace on emissions

The United Nations' top climate scientist does not expect any major breakthroughs on global warming next week when President Obama hosts Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, because the United States has not acted to curb its greenhouse gas emissions.

Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told reporters today that a "shadow" hangs over the Indian leader's state visit to Washington on Monday, which comes just three weeks before some 190 nations meet in Copenhagen, Denmark, to hammer out a political deal on climate change.

"I really don't see much in terms of coming together of views," Pachauri said from New Delhi, where he also serves as director-general of an Indian-based research center.

"I'm afraid, if anything, the gap has widened a bit," he added. "And what would really have carried a lot of credibility would have been some commitment on the part of the U.S. to reduce emissions, but since that's not forthcoming, I doubt if there would be much of a productive dialogue on what the two countries will do in Copenhagen when the two leaders meet next week."

Obama and other key world leaders last weekend agreed to focus on a political agreement during the Copenhagen negotiations, pushing back until 2010 the details of a new international treaty. The delay stems in large part from the slowdown on Capitol Hill, with an uncertain future as to whether the Senate can pass its version of climate legislation amid next year's midterm election campaign.

Pachauri, speaking on a conference call hosted by the Natural Resources Defense Council, said many international diplomats are upset with the slow pace in Washington, given expectations that built up over the last two years that the Copenhagen talks would result in a comprehensive new climate agreement.

"I wouldn't use the term 'blame on the United States,'" he said. "One knows that this administration really hasn't had enough time in office and there's the historical backlog of inaction for eight years and more. One could perhaps argue that this could have been a much higher priority and this should perhaps have been pushed before any of the other initiatives the administration has taken, particularly given the fact that there was a deadline of December for getting an agreement."

He added, "To that extent, I wouldn't place any blame, but I feel disappointed and so do so many other people that think that didn't move rapidly enough."

As for the upcoming state visit in Washington, Pachauri said he expects Obama and Singh to focus on areas where they can find agreement, including cooperation on low-carbon energy technologies, including "second generation" biofuels, solar power and development of a "smart" electricity grid in India.

"I hope the visit really marks a watershed in relations in a set of areas which really have enormous relevance not only for the two countries, but for the world as a whole," he said.

Avoiding talk of tariffs

Pachauri predicted that Obama and Singh would skirt discussions over U.S. legislative proposals to impose border tariffs on developing countries that have not set up their own stringent climate change policies. Key Midwestern lawmakers insist on the language to protect their local, trade-sensitive industries. But developing countries counter that such a move could provoke a trade war.

"I'm sure the U.S. administration knows that in most developing countries, any linking of climate-related actions with trade is seen with intense disfavor," he said. "Therefore, I really think, given the limited time the two leaders have, I doubt if the U.S. and President Obama in particular would raise this question."

Looking ahead to Copenhagen, Pachauri called for developed nations to focus on outlining their emission reduction targets for 2020, considering the growing scientific warnings that global emissions must peak by 2015 in order to keep temperatures from rising no more than 2 to 2.4 degrees Celsius. Pachauri predicted success in Copenhagen if developed countries propose emission limits along with a firm financial figure devoted to help developing countries deal with climate change.

"These are two things which would certainly make a major difference and would bring about a total change of atmosphere," he said.

Pachauri also said he didn't expect major developing countries, under the umbrella of the Group of 77 plus China, to combine on a collective emissions reduction target. Instead, he predicted a tit-for-tat series of pledges if developed countries step up, too.

"That's too large a group in which I think, particularly given the differentials in emission levels and economic conditions, that we might get any kind of agreement," he said. "But it's entirely possible if the developed world is prepared to walk the talk, then you'd get China, India, Brazil, Mexico making some commitments on their own national action plans and probably placing them as their commitment to the international community. I think something like that is possible."

The IPCC chief shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore. And he urged Obama, who is set to accept his own Nobel Peace Prize next month in Norway, to stick around the region to attend the Copenhagen talks. "I personally think he should," Pachauri said. "I mean he's going to be in the neighborhood in Oslo, anyway. Let him spend a little more time in Scandinavia if he can. I think it would be good."

White House climate and energy adviser Carol Browner said Wednesday that Obama has not made a decision yet on whether he will attend the U.N. negotiations.