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U.S., China Reach Tentative Climate Compromise

In this photo released by the White House, President Obama talks with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao during a bilateral meeting Friday at the U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen.
Pete Souza
In this photo released by the White House, President Obama talks with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao during a bilateral meeting Friday at the U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen.

After several frantic rounds of last-minute diplomacy at the climate change talks in Copenhagen, President Obama reached a "meaningful agreement" with the key developing nations of China, India, and South Africa that could salvage a deal to reduce global climate emissions, a senior Obama administration official told reporters in Copenhagen.

In a conference marked by a continual scaling back of ambitions, Obama and world leaders worked long into the night on Friday to devise a compromise to break the deadlock between industrialized nations and the developing world, led by China.

As part of the apparent deal, developed and developing nations would agree to commit to a target of limiting global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) within the next decade and to establish a financial mechanism to help poorer nations cope with climate change, the official said.


But the tentative compromise left a number of questions unresolved, including to what degree countries would be subject to international monitoring.

The U.S. official conceded the agreement was only a first step, and it remains unclear how all 193 nations will react to the watered-down deal.

But China's approval would be pivotal. Beijing, which emerged as the de facto leader of poorer nations at the conference, became the biggest obstacle to an agreement.

While the U.S. and European nations had largely agreed on a series of carbon emission cuts and a package of financial aid for poor nations, China refused to accept several key provisions.

President Obama's arrival in Copenhagen on Friday provided a jolt of energy to the talks. He apparently came with no new dramatic proposals to win over poorer nations, but he worked to achieve what one delegate called "consensus by exhaustion."


"No country will get everything that it wants," Obama said Friday morning.

One of the toughest sticking points has been the insistence by Washington and others on a global inspection regime that would monitor whether countries, including China and India, are meeting their emissions targets. Beijing pledged to slow emissions but refused to agree to an independent monitoring system.

"We will honor our word with real action," Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said early on Friday before meeting privately with Obama for more than an hour. They met again later in the evening, along with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and South African President Jacob Zuma.

2010 Treaty Target Dropped

For most of the two-week conference, the gap between the developed world and poorer, developing nations appeared insurmountable.

Even before Copenhagen began, leaders admitted they would not be able to agree on a legally binding climate treaty in Copenhagen, saying that they would instead push that off to a conference scheduled for Mexico City in late 2010.

By Friday, the 2010 deadline for a legally binding treaty had been dropped altogether.

Instead, the objective was downgraded to simply trying to agree on a brief political statement laying out the broad goals, including a specific target for reducing global greenhouse gas emissions and the creation of a fund to help developing nations.

The final deal falls short of what the Obama administration had hoped for when timing his dramatic, last-minute arrival at the conference.

Financial Commitments

In a short speech to the morning session of the negotiation, Obama tried emphasize the stakes at the 193-nation summit.

"While the reality of climate change is not in doubt, I have to be honest, as the world watches us today, I think our ability to take collective action is in doubt right now, and it hangs in the balance," he told the conference. "I believe we can act boldly, and decisively, in the face of a common threat. That's why I come here today — not to talk, but to act."

Many other developing nations are unhappy with the offer by the U.S. and others to provide up to $100 billion annually to help poor countries cope with climate change, arguing they need significantly more support.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton endorsed the $100 billion target when she arrived in Copenhagen on Thursday, but the money is contingent on a climate deal that includes effective verification measures to monitor countries' compliance with emissions targets.

Obama made no immediate gesture to suggest that figure could grow larger.

"We know the fault lines because we've been imprisoned by them for years," Obama said. "These international discussions have essentially taken place now for almost two decades, and we have very little to show for it other than an increased acceleration of the climate change phenomenon."

The U.S. is supporting a goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels. That target falls below offers put forward by Europe, Japan, and Russia. China has offered general support for the target, but has shown little willingness to bend on its other objections.

China has emerged as the pivotal leader of the developing nations bloc in Copenhagen, helping to forge a surprisingly powerful and united front against the U.S. and the European Union.

"One of the major revelations coming out of the Copenhagen summit is the strength of the developing country coalition," says an analysis by the Eurasia Group, a global political risk research firm. "The clear implication from this development is that these countries consider their interests far more aligned with each other than with industrialized countries, despite concerted efforts by the U.S., E.U., and others to divide them into two main groupings — poorer countries (such as least developed countries in sub-Saharan Africa) and larger, faster growing economies (like China and India)."