WARSAW, Poland -- A top-down agreement on carbon reduction preferred by some environmentalists slipped a bit further out of reach today as negotiators unveiled a new text that greens say would not hold countries accountable for their national reduction targets.
With annual U.N. climate change talks entering their last tense hours here, the latest mitigation text would soften a past requirement that countries provide the U.N. body with information to explain why the carbon dioxide reduction pledges they make for a new international emissions agreement are an appropriate contribution.
Under the new proposed text, countries now would be directed to only consider providing that information to the Conference of the Parties, or COP, instead of being compelled to do so. The latest text also would jettison a proposal calling for review of those pledges in light of factors like a country's capacity to reduce emissions and the overall goal of keeping warming at less than 2 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels.
"It really took the guts out of the approach they were discussing earlier this week," Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists said in a briefing with reporters.
Negotiators had hoped that this week's talks in the Polish capital would be a steppingstone toward an agreement to be finalized at a 2015 meeting in Paris, but environmentalists and others complain the new text provides vague language about when national pledges would be due, which could make reaching an agreement in Paris harder (ClimateWire, Nov. 22).
Meyer said national ministers in charge of the negotiations apparently had decided that major industrializing nations -- notably China, India and Brazil -- would not accept the level of accountability provided for in previous versions of the text.
"Without any kind of meaningful review process, you're basically just letting countries propose anything they think they can get away with, with no one evaluating it or saying whether they're doing their fair share," he said.
But Meyer said the nations and groups that want major emitters to advance strong emissions-reduction pledges in the near future -- such as the European Union, the United States, small island nations and a range of countries that will be adversely affected by climate change -- will continue the fight today to restore some of the stripped-out language.
"This is one of the big issues that there's going to be a political struggle over in the remaining hours of this COP," Meyer said.
The United States and the European Union have put forward slightly different timelines for a due date on emissions pledges, with the European Union saying countries should release them next fall in time for a U.N. summit in New York. The United States, meanwhile, has said it is already in the process of considering a pledge for post-2020 emissions reduction but has said it would be prepared to release that pledge late in the first quarter of 2015.
U.S. Special Envoy Todd Stern told reporters that the new text is an improvement over past drafts because it calls for countries to introduce pledges "well in advance" of the Paris COP, although he did not say he was entirely satisfied with the new text on mitigation.
But he added that the United States would like to see "stronger language indicating a real timeline to drive our work" about when emissions reduction commitments should be put forward.
"It's still not there, but it's a step forward," he added.
European Climate Change Commissioner Connie Hedegaard told reporters that she was not satisfied with the text but that negotiators from both the developed and developing world are working to improve it. The United States, in particular, could help strengthen the decision reached today or tomorrow that will set the stage for the next two years of negotiations, she said.
"I think that it is a very good and encouraging sign that among these forces we now also have the United States also saying that they are willing to come forward with things in good time before Paris 2015," she said.
Large developing nations, including China and India, have said the convention that governs the talks assigns mandatory obligations only to developed nations. Developing nations should be held only to voluntary actions, they say, which they will not be prepared to offer until a later date.
But Hedegaard said that "firewall" between historically rich and poor countries should play no role in the 2015 agreement.
"This is not the time to go backwards and reinstall walls that we have been tearing down," she said.
Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House climate adviser, said the United States' bid to push the deadline for submission back to the first quarter of 2015 -- rather than releasing its pledge in 2014 as the European Union has advocated -- could delay other countries from advancing their pledges.
"It could have a domino effect," he said.
But he added that early 2015 would be an ideal time for the Obama administration to roll out a new pledge because next year's midterm elections will be over, the 2016 presidential campaign will not have begun in earnest, and U.S. EPA will have heard comments on its proposal to limit CO2 emissions from existing power plants.
Former George W. Bush administration lead negotiator Harlan Watson said the Obama administration's proposal for a 2015 deal -- in which countries on an equal legal footing put forward voluntary targets -- closely hews to what Republicans once proposed.
"They're doing exactly what the Bush administration did," Watson said. "That's the only way you're going to get an agreement."
Watson, who is at the Warsaw conference representing the right-leaning Competitive Enterprise Institute think tank, said he is "skeptical" that climate change is man-made.
But he said, "If you believe the climate is a problem and you want to establish a multilateral process, the way to do it is to get countries to come forward [with voluntary pledges] and tie it together."
Reporter Lisa Friedman contributed.