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Opinion: Missing link in Obama's climate strategy

Mitigation is all that matters, but countries can't agree on how.

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks after attending the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Dec. 18, 2009. Obama reached agreement with major developing powers on a climate deal Friday, though he said the accord was only a first step. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

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.”