Page last updated at 00:30 GMT, Monday, 1 December 2008

UN climate summit seeks clarity

By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website

Coal mine
Emissions from coal burning are a key climate issue

This year's round of UN climate talks are opening in Poland with nations attempting to set the terms of a new deal on all aspects of climate change.

The talks, in the city of Poznan, mark the halfway point in a two-year process agreed at last year's UN conference.

The meeting will not produce a new deal but is likely to clarify what countries are looking for on issues such as emission cuts and forest protection.

The US will be represented by officials of the outgoing Bush administration.

The two-year process which began at last December's talks in Bali is designed to conclude in a year's time with an agreement that can enter force in 2012 when the current emission cuts under the Kyoto Protocol expire.

Delegates with banner

"The Poznan conference is taking place in the broader context of the current global financial crisis and impending recession," noted Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

"But we cannot allow this to detract from the fight against climate change.

"The effects of climate change... are already weighting heavily upon those most vulnerable."

The last year has been a "year of ideas", with countries working out when they want and how they might get it.

Poznan marks a change of pace, and the beginning of real negotiations.

Commitment issue

Mr de Boer said that clarity needs to emerge at the meeting on three issues:

  • the scale of commitments that countries are willing make on cutting emissions
  • the scale of financial resources that developed nations are willing to commit
  • what institutions will run various funds and mechanism

On emissions cuts, the EU is leading the way in pushing for deep commitments.

It is arguing that richer nations should pledge cuts of between 25% and 40% from 1990 levels by 2020.

But as UN negotiators talk in Poznan, the European Council will be holding sessions in Brussels aimed at finalising its climate and energy package, which will clarify the scale of the bloc's eventual unilateral commitments.

The council is likely endorse plans to cut EU emissions by 20% by 2020, or by 30% if there is a new global deal, and to provide 20% of all energy from renewable sources by the same date.

But Poland, a major coal-mining and coal-using country, is leading a group of nations that profess themselves unhappy with the EU package.

Barack Obama
Though physically absent, Barack Obama will be a key figure

Some observers are concerned that Poland will use its position as host of the UN talks to project its own concerns and detract from EU leadership of the climate agenda.

Questions also surround the incoming US administration of Barack Obama.

While the president-elect has vowed to re-integrate with the UN negotiations, it is unclear whether the administration can secure agreement within the US on key questions such as emissions targets in time to put forward concrete plans for the UN deadline of 2009.

Angela Ledford-Anderson, director of the international global warming programme with the Pew Environment Group, believes the 2009 Copenhagen meeting might be too soon for other countries too to agree firm emission cuts.

"There's a real need to get as far and be as specific as they can before Copenhagen, but the most important things are the broad outlines of the agreement - how they're going to mitigate [emissions], how they're going to adapt to climate change, what is the range of financing available," she told BBC News.

"It might be more important for them to get the architecture in place; and once they've agreed that, they could spend the next year coming up with the targets."

Business development

The Poznan meeting is expected to make progress on setting up a mechanism to pay developing countries for preserving their carbon-absorbing tropical forests.

There are significant questions as to how this should be funded and managed, with developed nations determined to avoid paying for programmes that the forest-owning governments would have initiated anyway.

However, it is seen as a priority for action, with Brazil having just announced that its rate of forest loss is speeding up.

The richer developing nations will also come under some pressure to make pledges on curbing emissions.

A number, including China, have said they will reduce future emissions below "business as usual"; but that still allows room for their greenhouse gas output to increase.

According to UK government sources, a recent unpublished study prepared for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concludes that the developing world must restrain emissions growth enough to keep it 15-30% below "business as usual" by 2020.

Even if developing nations accept restrictions on this scale, how to quantify "business as usual" emissions, and how to verify reductions, are likely to be contentious issues.

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