Economic Downturn Could Affect Climate Talks

Poznan, Poland, is hosting the current round of talks to tackle one of the most difficult issues of our day: global warming. The goal is to craft a treaty that will turn the world away from fossil fuels in the coming decades. But the global economic meltdown could put a damper on the already difficult talks.

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About 8,000 delegates from 180 countries are gathering in Poznan, Poland, to try again today to shape an elusive agreement on global warming. NPR's Richard Harris reports.

RICHARD HARRIS: The scientific consensus is that we need to reduce global greenhouse gases by a staggering 50 percent or more between now and about 2050 to reduce the risk of a climate catastrophe. The diplomatic consensus is that negotiators have about a year left to come up with a global plan.

Professor JAN SZYSZKO (Deputy Environment Minister, Poland): Time is running out.

HARRIS: Jan Szyszko is Poland's deputy environment minister.

Professor SZYSZKO: It's an enormous challenge to get such a complex international deal in such short amount of time.

HARRIS: There's little hope delegates in Poznan will be able to break the longstanding logjam on this issue. The meeting's secretary-general, Yvo de Boer, says for one thing there's suddenly much less appetite for an agreement that would ultimately push up the price of energy around the world.

Mr. YVO DE BOER (Executive Secretary, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change): Clearly the financial crisis will have an impact. Money is scarce, economies are in trouble, oil prices are going down, which is a disincentive for a new bioenergy and energy efficiency.

HARRIS: In addition, many attendees don't expect much out of the Bush administration which will represent the United States for the last time at the climate talks. President Bush rejected the existing climate treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, and has been lukewarm at the international climate talks to develop a successor to the Kyoto treaty. That said, de Boer is trying to remain optimistic about the Bush administration's role in Poznan.

Mr. DE BOER: Well, a lame duck can still quack.

HARRIS: And although President-elect Obama will not be a presence at the upcoming meeting, Senator John Kerry plans to be there. The Massachusetts Democrat is the incoming chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, and it will be his job to convince two-thirds of the Senate to ratify any final climate treaty.

Senator JOHN KERRY (Democrat, Massachusetts): A very significant component of the message that I will carry to Poznan is that America is back.

HARRIS: Those who are just content to wait for the Obama administration to appear in full force, though, risk writing off Poznan entirely. And United Nations official Robert Orr says that would be a mistake.

Dr. ROBERT ORR (Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Coordination and Strategic Planning, United Nations): We do need a successful outcome in Poznan. This includes agreeing on a shared vision for the negotiation - the ever elusive shared vision.

HARRIS: You heard right. With only a year to go to reach a new climate treaty, the nations of the world are still nowhere near agreeing on a vision, let alone how they would meet that challenge. For example, Western Europe has pushed hard for binding targets on emissions reductions, though most of Western Europe is falling short of its own emissions reduction goals. U.N. official de Boer says China and India have started to acknowledge the risks of climate change, but economic growth in those coal-fired countries is the priority.

Mr. DE BOER: In India, 400 million people - 400 million people don't even have access to electricity. So clearly a priority for that country is going to be to get people connected to clean sources of energy, so they can improve their lives.

HARRIS: There's no easy or obvious way to meet the world's disparate needs, balancing very real economic concerns against very worrisome long-term environmental risks. The climate talks in Poznan can, at best, move that conversation along. Richard Harris, NPR News.

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