The latest round of UNFCCC climate talks kicked off this week in Bonn, Germany, with delegates from 182 countries in tow and texts of draft agreements to work with for the first time.
The urgency is palpable: The world now has less than six weeks of allotted negotiating time to turn 53 pages of rough draft into a meaningful global climate treaty in Copenhagen in December.
It could go either way.
Yvo de Boer, head of the UN Climate Change Secretariat, called the text "a significant new step." Nations accepted it, but they did so only grudgingly, signaling problems ahead.
Specifically, the Obama administration said the document lets developing countries off the hook. China, India, Brazil and the G-77 group of developing states claimed it's not harsh enough on cuts in emissions by the rich, highlighting the nagging rift between wealthy and poor nations.
As it stands, the text is chock-full of fill-in-the-blanks and multiple choices. Most worryingly, all four of the political deal-breakers remain unsettled. They are:
- By how much do industrialized nations intend to shrink their emissions by 2020?
- What will developing nations do to limit the growth of their emissions?
- What will be the system for delivering financial resources and clean energy technology to help developing countries with adaptation and mitigation?
- What will be the new governance regime under a Copenhagen deal?
The first two historical sticking points are absolutely vital to success of a worthwhile deal.
The science on what to do is clear: Developed countries need to slash their emissions by 25-40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 to constrain global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.
The offers on the table simply "don't amount to enough," de Boer said.
The EU has agreed to a 20 percent emissions reduction below 1990 levels by 2020. Leaders have said they'll boost that to 30 percent if other industrialized countries follow suit. The United States' proposed ACES climate bill targets a 17 percent cut below 2005 levels by 2020. That would represent a goal of just 4 percent below 1990 levels, according to figures from the World Resources Institute – if (and it's a big if) the bill becomes law.
Already, Jonathan Pershing, the deputy special envoy for climate change, has warned in Bonn that the legislation may not even be completed by December, making it impossible for U.S. negotiators to present any kind of final number for the Copenhagen agreement.
"It might mean that you have a framework in place as opposed to absolute numbers. Those numbers may come a bit later," he said.
Meanwhile, China and other developing countries want the U.S. and other rich nations to commit now to slashing emissions by at least 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 – an extreme and politically unrealistic demand.
Could Japan help to bridge the gap? The nation will soon announce its domestic mid-term mitigation targets for 2020. It is said to be considering six options, ranging from a pathetic 4 percent rise in emissions to an ambitious 25 percent cut.
Said Michael Zammit Cutajar, chair of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action, during a press conference of the UNFCCC Executive Secretary:
"We're waiting with bated breath for a figure from Japan."
The reason is simple: If Japan were to announce a target of at least 25 percent, it could drive up the level of ambition of the other umbrella group countries (U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Iceland, Norway, Russia and the Ukraine) and undermine nations' excuses for weak action. Right now, for example, Canada has a meager target of 3 percent by 2020 below 1990 levels. New Zealand has none. Australia has a target of 25 percent with a number of conditions on developing nations that have some crying bait and switch.
As always, though, the U.S.-China power play has dominated talks.
The U.S. wants China, the world's largest emitter of carbon, to commit to hard targets and timetables for cutting emissions. As Todd Stern, Obama's chief climate negotiator, said in a lecture at the Center for American Progress, if every other country besides China reduced emissions by 80 percent, China's emissions alone put us at a 2.7 degree Celsius increase by 2050.
In fact, he made it clear for the first time since Obama took over the presidency: "No deal will be possible if we don't find a way forward with China."
On Saturday, Stern will go to China to try to influence leadership. As U.S. Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts said of these talks:
"This is going to be on one of the most complex diplomatic negotiations in the history of the world."
Indeed, if this impossibly complicated global deal, which must be forged in less than 200 days, hinges on a U.S.-China partnership, the odds of success are even steeper.