Opinion: Missing link in Obama's climate strategy

ROME, Italy — As negotiations over a climate change accord moved into overtime Friday, U.S. President Barack Obama described three elements he said would be necessary in any deal to stop the warming of the world.

“Mitigation. Transparency. Financing,” Obama said in a speech Friday. “It’s a clear formula.”

Of those three, however, only one makes a difference in halting climate change. And it was on that one that negotiators were farthest from agreeing.

The bulk of the previous week had been spent skirmishing over financing. The World Bank has estimated that even if the world does band together to rein in the mercury’s climb, developing countries will still need up to $100 billion a year to adapt to the impacts of the greenhouse gases that will be released before the spigot is shut.

With early drafts of a climate change treaty committing rich nations to just one-tenth of that, a bloc of developing countries walked out in protest. On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded, offering “to work with other countries toward a goal of jointly mobilizing $100 billion a year by 2020 to address the climate change needs of developing countries.”

Clinton’s heavily hedged commitment didn’t give developing countries all they would like. The money is likely to come from private investments, rather than be funded taxpayers. And it would probably include funds spent on lowering emissions in the developing world in exchange for allowing rich countries to continue to pollute.

But the proposal has received the blessing of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who headed the African delegation during the conference’s close. “Because we have more to lose, we should compromise and be flexible,” he said.

On the issue of transparency, however, the United States has had less success. The Kyoto Protocol required emission cuts from rich countries, and allowed developing economies to continue to expand. But it has since become clear that success in the fight against global warming will require action by fast-growing countries like China, Brazil, India, South Africa and Mexico.

The United States and other rich countries have accepted that developing countries won’t be required to cut their greenhouse gas production right away. Instead, they are asking that they commit to reduce the speed of their emission growth — and that their compliance be verifiable. “I don’t know how you have an international agreement where we all are not sharing information,” Obama said in his speech. “It would be a hollow victory.”

China, for its part, has promised only to increase the efficiency of its economy, pledging to produce fewer greenhouse gases per dollar, even if overall emissions will continue to rise. Speaking before Obama, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao insisted that his country’s proposals were voluntary and unilateral.

However, Wen did offer a nod towards conciliation. In previous statements, China had resisted calls for greater openness as threats to its sovereignty, but on Friday, Wen pledged to “increase transparency and actively engage in international exchange, dialogue and cooperation.” The two heads of state met twice for an hour each time after the speeches.

But it’s on mitigation that the negotiators had the furthest to go. The talks had begun with the bar already set as low as it could go, with countries agreed that the earth should not be allowed warm more than 2 degrees Celsius, the level beyond which scientists worry that the planet will begin to undergo changes that will perpetuate the thermometer’s climb.

Yet even that seemed beyond reach. Early Friday morning a leaked United Nations report showed that the commitments made so far — if adhered to — would lead to a warming of 3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century and cause severe disruptions, such as the collapse of the Amazon rainforest, the disappearance of coral reefs and the submergence of small island nations.

By the end of the day, a draft of a possible agreement listed only one far-away commitment for rich countries: cutting emission by 80 percent by 2050. Closer targets were listed simply as “X” and “Y.” And while the draft suggested raising the ambition to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsuis, it also prolonged the deadline for coming to a final agreement — to 2016.

Of the three pillars of a climate change agreement described by Obama, two are linked, but the third is missing. The United States has stressed that funding will only be forthcoming if developing countries commit to openness. But no amount of adaptation funding or transparency can put a halt to the warming of the world. Cooperation on mitigation is the only thing that matters. And on that there has yet to be any progress.