With the world's climate change negotiators poised to descend on Barcelona on Monday for the final round of United Nations talks before the Copenhagen summit, UN climate chief Yvo do Boer is tempering expectations.
"It is physically impossible, under any scenario, to complete every detail of a treaty in Copenhagen," he said. But it is possible to "nail down the essentials" that will lead to a long-term binding treaty.
It was not the first time de Boer spoke publicly of the impossibility of a full treaty by year's end. But there was a slight change in his tune: This outcome would not automatically mean failure, he suggested.
"It took five years ... before the Kyoto Protocol was ultimately ratified by a sufficient number of countries and entered into force. So to get every last detail right, it takes time," de Boer said.
De Boer, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), spoke in a news conference in Bonn this week, at a time when UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was trying to spread hope.
"I am still optimistic," Ban told reporters.
But behind the optimism was concern. Ban similarly implied that a "political" agreement — meaning, a non-binding, non-legal settlement — is the new ambition for Copenhagen.
That doesn't mean it will be easy.
In five weeks, officials from 192 nations will meet in Denmark to hammer out the components of a climate treaty to replace the expiring Kyoto Protocol. The Barcelona talks, Nov. 2-6, are the last round of meetings before final decisions are made.
Currently, the negotiating text stands at 200-plus pages of confusing and contradictory particulars, with no formal agreement on the four "political essentials":
• ambitious mid-term greenhouse gas reduction targets by rich nations;
• nationally appropriate mitigation actions by poor nations;
• stable and predictable financing and technological support for developing countries; and
• a global governance regime to implement the mandates.
The biggest historical sticking point is the greenhouse gas cuts.
As Ban said, "all countries must commit to limit emissions."
The rich-poor divide on this issue is well known. Developing countries, led by China and India, want the rich to slash emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, at least. That's far deeper than what's being considered by any industrial nation, with the exception of Norway, which pledged a 40 percent emissions reduction in early October.
The nations within the EU have agreed to cut emissions 20 percent and could go to 30 percent if the U.S. and other rich countries sign on. Likewise, new Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama wants to cut his nation's emissions by 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 if Copenhagen produces a treaty. Meanwhile, the climate bill wending its way through the U.S. Senate would shrink CO2 output by 20 percent from 2005 levels by 2020 — a cut of roughly 7 percent below 1990 levels.
Getting every country to sign up for a new global climate treaty, a UN requirement, will be the biggest challenge.
A China-U.S. agreement could ease some of the political deadlock. President Obama is slated to travel to China next month to discuss cooperation on climate issues with President Hu Jintao. Fingers will be crossed, but the U.S. climate envoy has already softened high expectations:
"I don't think we are getting any agreement per se," said envoy Todd Stern.
EU leaders closed a two-day meeting in Brussels today that could help break the stalemate on financing. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told reporters the EU had agreed to pay up to $75 billion a year to developing nations, conditional on other countries' participation. That's half of the annual $150 billion that the EU believes will be necessary by 2020 to help developing countries tackle climate change. The bloc will put three offers on the table in Copenhagen. Its unified stance is meant to put pressure on the U.S. to follow suit.
Even if the financing piece gets squared away, it won't be enough to produce a binding treaty without agreement on emissions reductions. Anticipating that result, Norway and Sweden have proposed a follow-up UN conference in early 2010, instead of waiting a full year as currently scheduled.
At the close of the Bangkok climate talks in October, which ended with no major improvement in rich-poor divisions, de Boer said that while "the underlying spirit in this process remains constructive," there are "still some long-held differences."
He told officials in attendance that they must get from their leaders "a mandate to resolve the key political issues that are outstanding" before the November 2 Barcelona talks kick off.
"What we must do now is step back from self interest and let common interests prevail."
There's no sign that that's happened yet.
SolveClimate will be reporting from the Barcelona climate talks Nov. 2-6. Check back for updates.