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U.S., China Reach Tentative Climate Compromise

President Barack Obama makes a statement at the United Nations Climate Change Conference at the Bella Center in Copenhagen, Denmark, Friday.
Susan Walsh
President Barack Obama makes a statement at the United Nations Climate Change Conference at the Bella Center in Copenhagen, Denmark, Friday.

After a frantic last-minute diplomatic intervention by President Obama at the climate change talks in Copenhagen, the U.S reached what Obama called an "unprecedented breakthrough" with the key developing nations of China, India, South Africa and Brazil.

In a conference marked by a continual scaling back of ambitions, Obama and world leaders in the end were able to forge a deal to curb greenhouse gas emissions — breaking a deadlock between the U.S. and China.

Under the deal, developed and developing nations agree to limit global warming to no more than a 2 degree Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) increase within the next decade. Richer nations would also provide $30 billion over the next three years — eventually scaling up to $100 billion a year by 2020 — to help poorer nations cope with climate change, Obama administration officials said.

But the agreement does not mandate targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions or create a strict monitoring regime. And a European Union official said an overall agreement involving those nations not included in the deal that Obama announced was still being negotiated.

Obama said the deal was significant because it is the first time that all nations, including the developing world, would voluntarily agree to steps to mitigate the effects of climate change.

"Ultimately, this issue is going to be dictated by the science," Obama told reporters Friday evening. "And the science indicates that we are going to have to take more aggressive steps in the future."

"We have come a long way, but we have much further to go," he said.

If the countries had waited to reach a full, binding agreement, "then we wouldn't make any progress," Obama said. In that case, he said, "there might be such frustration and cynicism that rather than taking one step forward, we ended up taking two steps back."

Obama suggested the agreement would be adopted by the larger summit in its closing hours.

A final plenary session began debating the agreement early Saturday morning with the aim of reaching enough consensus that the president of the conference, Danish Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen, could declare the document approved. But that outcome was thrown into question as a string of developing nations began to protest what they called an inadequate and nonbinding text.

The delegate from the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu — which is threatened by rising seas — told the meeting that his country's future was not for sale. Cuba, Bolivia and Venezuela complained that they had no input into the drafting of the document.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a leading proponent of strong action to confront global warming, gave the Copenhagen Accord grudging acceptance but said she had "mixed feelings" about the outcome and called it only a first step.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said the deal was "clearly below" the European Union's goal.

"I will not hide my disapointment," he said.

But British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the agreement had almost universal support. "Let's remember, a year ago nobody thought this sort of agreement was possible," he said.

"It's not what we expected," Brazilian Ambassador Sergio Barbosa Serra said. "It may still be a way of salvaging something and paving the way for another a meeting or series of meetings next year."

For now, countries will commit to publicly laying out their emissions targets by January 2010, although the targets will not be legally binding. Exactly how those commitments would be monitored also has yet to be resolved.

"We have much further to go" in the fight against climate change, Obama conceded, adding that Washington would push for a more binding deal in the future.

"This is going to be hard," he added. "This is hard within countries. It's going to be even harder between countries."

It also remains unclear how all 193 nations will react to the watered-down deal.

But China's approval was essential. 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.

"After negotiations, both sides have managed to preserve their bottom line," China's top climate negotiator, Xie Zhenhua, told reporters. "For the Chinese, this was our sovereignty and our national interest."

President Obama's appearance in Copenhagen on Friday provided a jolt of energy to the talks. He arrived 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 was 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.

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."

The Obama administration has supported 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.

"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)."

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