U.S., China Step Forward In Climate Debate As the Copenhagen talks neared collapse last week, President Obama cut a last-minute deal with leaders from China and three other nations to curb greenhouse gases. It's unclear how they'll do that, but one thing is clear: The U.S. and China have become leaders that may shape the new climate diplomacy.
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U.S., China Step Forward In Climate Debate

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U.S., China Step Forward In Climate Debate

U.S., China Step Forward In Climate Debate

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This is MORNING EDITION for NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Diplomats around the world are trying to figure out exactly what they agreed to last week at the Copenhagen climate conference. The conference was near collapse when President Obama and four other heads of state cut a last-minute deal to curb greenhouse gases. But it's still unclear how they'll do that and exactly who will participate.

One thing that is clear is that the U.S. and China are no longer observers in the international climate debate, but leaders. NPR's Christopher Joyce has this story on the new shape of climate diplomacy.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: The goal in Copenhagen was for the world's nations to draft a new climate treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which is administered by the United Nations. Instead, negotiations collapsed. When President Obama arrived on the last day, he set up a meeting with China. And the two countries - joined by India, Brazil and South Africa - cut their own deal: the Copenhagen Accord.

Afterwards, Mr. Obama explained why he couldn't wait for the other 188 countries at the conference to agree on a draft plan.

President BARACK OBAMA: This is a classic example of a situation where if we just waited for that, then we would not make any progress. And, in fact, I think there might be such frustration and cynicism that, rather than taking one step forward, we ended up taking two steps back.

JOYCE: Many delegations did not view the five-nation accord as a step forward, but all but a few have now agreed at least to note the new accord. The accord is less than many wanted. It's voluntary, and it postpones setting hard numbers on reducing short-term emissions. It pays poorer countries to adapt to climate change, but not as much as many of them wanted.

Nonetheless, many in the climate business say it's lemonade from what was a very sour lemon. Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, is in the lemonade camp. She says people had pushed the myth that the world was ready to agree on a new binding treaty, and it wasn't, she says, because the United Nations-based negotiating process totally failed.

Ms. EILEEN CLAUSSEN (President, Pew Center on Global Climate Change): I mean, you should have had the U.N. trying to figure out, knowing where all the countries were, what was actually a possible outcome. And that didn't happen.

JOYCE: Instead, delegations from countries like Sudan and Venezuela burned up conference time with procedural tactics and, Claussen says, unrealistic demands.

Ms. CLAUSSEN: It wasn't clear that anything could get done because some group of countries or some country was trying to hold up everything, which is why I think the approach of just trying to do an accord with a small number of countries was probably the only way to have anything come out of this at all.

JOYCE: Even Europe, which embraces the Kyoto scheme for emissions reductions, was not part of that small deciding group.

Mr. RAY KOPP (Climate Economist, Resources for the Future): I personally believe that the Kyoto track under the U.N. is just done for, that nothing's going down that path.

JOYCE: That's Ray Kopp, a climate economist with Resources for the Future. He says the new diplomatic path could become two paths: one for countries that are part of the Kyoto Protocol, and another led by the U.S. and, increasingly, China - the two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. He says that doesn't necessarily mean getting worldwide emissions reductions will get any easier.

Mr. KOPP: As a diplomatic friend of mine once said, you know, China looks an awful lot like us. You know, they don't want to be pushed around. They want to do what they want to do. And it's hard to kind of put a lot of political pressure on them.

JOYCE: But President Obama did put enough pressure on China last Friday to at least bring the country into the new international climate accord and, in effect, join with the developed nations.

For climate scholar Kenneth Green at the American Enterprise Institute, the failure to get a U.N.-centric, Kyoto-style plan out of Copenhagen is a good thing.

Dr. KENNETH GREEN (American Enterprise Institute): Kyoto has been an albatross around the necks of those - of people who are genuinely concerned about climate change. The first thing they have to do is let go of the failed model, because they're pushing for basically two things countries cannot - democracies, especially - cannot do. It's economic suicide and the exporting of massive amounts of their people's wealth to their enemies or competitors.

JOYCE: Green and other climate experts note the irony that, in the end, a few major economic powers ended up forging an emissions reduction deal among themselves, the so-called major economies approach that former President George W. Bush once proposed as an alternative to the Kyoto Protocol.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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