Connect to share and comment

Opinion: Missing link in Obama's climate strategy

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

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.