- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 19, 2009

President Obama announced Friday that he had agreed to a “first step” climate change deal with China, India, Brazil and South Africa at the United Nations conference in Copenhagen - an accord long on promise and short on accomplishment.

The agreement is not binding on the U.S. or any of the other top emitters of heat-trapping gases. Mr. Obama acknowledged that commitments pledged by the U.S. and the other countries do not guarantee that climate change will be reduced enough to prevent serious adverse consequences to the environment.

“We know that progress did not come easily and that this progress is not enough,” he told reporters. “We’ve come a long way but we have much further to go.”

Mr. Obama also signaled that any effort to write a binding treaty, which was the original purpose of the summit, will be postponed for now. “I think it’s going to be very hard and it’s going to take some time,” he said. Yet Mr. Obama called the agreement “meaningful and unprecedented,” because it included promises by China and other major developing nations to slow the growth of their greenhouse gas emissions.

“What we’ve achieved in Copenhagen will not be the end, but the beginning, the beginning of a new era of international action,” he said.

The president spoke with reporters after a whirlwind day in Copenhagen that included two sessions with Chinese leaders and an all-out effort to secure some sort of deal before he boarded Air Force One for a hurried flight home. The president and his advisers were aware that coming home empty-handed would be a significant political problem, especially because it would evoke memories of his last failed visit to Copenhagen, when he sought to secure the Olympic games for his home city of Chicago.

Some were ominously warning of a Copenhagen curse.

The most stubborn issue he faced was Chinese resistance to plans to verify that countries were living up to their commitments.

Ultimately, Mr. Obama said verification of the commitments would be subject to international consultation but not mandatory third-party review, which China had rejected as an infringement on its sovereignty.

The accord was expected to be considered by the full 193-nation conference either late Friday or Saturday. Mr. Obama said he expected the conference to embrace the agreement.

The agreement was reached only after talks that ran late into the evening Friday in the snowy Danish capital with the leaders of China, India, South Africa, Brazil and Ethiopia. They, along with other developing countries, had pressed industrial nations to do more to cut their own greenhouse gas emissions and send billions of dollars in climate aid to poor nations.

Mr. Obama dashed between meetings throughout the day, including two with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. He left Copenhagen for Washington before the deal could be presented because of the snowstorm forecast to hit the U.S. East Coast Friday night.

Mr. Obama and Mr. Wen, considered the key architects of any final agreement, began the day without making any new commitments in speeches to the conference.

“We are ready to get this done today but there has to be movement on all sides to recognize that it is better for us to act rather than talk,” Mr. Obama later told reporters, insisting on a transparent way to monitor each nation’s pledges to cut emissions.

Mr. Wen told delegates that China’s voluntary targets of reducing its carbon intensity by 40 to 45 percent will require “tremendous efforts.” The target refers to China’s rate of emissions per unit of economic growth.

“We will honor our word with real action,” Mr. Wen said.

For a time, the summit appeared on the verge of failing to meet already-modest goals for a purely rhetorical agreement because of impasses between rich and poor countries over greenhouse gas emissions cuts and verification methods.

Draft agreements circulated among negotiators dropped a 2010 deadline for completion of a binding treaty and also omitted a global greenhouse gas emissions reduction target of 50 percent by 2050, as had been urged by climate scientists.

As the president flew home Friday night, senior White House officials began describing some of the brinkmanship that took place in the final hours before the climate deal.

Speaking on the condition they not be named, senior officials told reporters during an Air Force One briefing that, even after 5 p.m., the president believed the deal could be in peril.

“I mean, look, I think it’s safe to say at that point in the day, China had real - they were balking at transparency,” the official said.

Mr. Obama, who had already met once with Mr. Wen, said to his aides, “I don’t want to mess around with this anymore, I want to just talk with Premier Wen,” the senior official quoted the president as saying.

The problem was, as the hour grew late, several key officials were headed to the airport. They thought the deal was out of reach, the official said.

“I think they thought the meeting was done. I think they thought there wasn’t anything left to stay for, in all honesty,” the official said.

After some intensive wrangling, the Chinese, Brazilians, Indians and South Africans all made their way back to the negotiating table.

When Mr. Obama showed up, he thought he was going to sit down with Mr. Wen, but found the leaders of all four countries in the room.

“The president walks in - and by the time I finally push through I hear the president say - there aren’t any seats, right, I mean, I think if you’ve seen some of the pictures, there were basically no chairs,” the senior official said. “And the president says, ‘No, no, don’t worry, I’m going to go sit by my friend [Brazilian President Luiz Inacio] Lula [da Silva],’ and says, ‘Hey, Lula.’ Walks over, moves a chair, sits down next to Lula.”

And it was at this meeting, the official said, that a deal was finally struck.

In the end, a nonbinding agreement along with a promise to try to firm things up later was the best the negotiators could do.

“You might compare it to a ‘standstill agreement’ in trade negotiations,” in which all sides agree to abide by the commitments made to date, said Melinda Cooke, a vice president at the U.N. Foundation.

Elliot Diringer, a vice president at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, called the agreement “an important step forward,” but cautioned that a binding treaty in a year, as some had hoped would happen, now appears to be a huge challenge.

It was unclear whether the agreement would include a plan by the U.S. and other wealthy nations to begin sending $30 billion in adaptation and forest preservation aid to poorer developing countries. The total could increase to $100 billion a year by 2020 under proposals by the U.S. and others, but the disposition of that suggestion remained unresolved.

Also unknown was the future of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol’s limits on emissions by industrial nations, which expire in three years. The United States did not sign that treaty.

Mr. Obama told global leaders during his speech Friday that he came to the climate-change negotiations in Copenhagen “not to talk, but to act.” He also voiced frustration over the fact that the summit netted little progress in the days before he and other world leaders arrived.

“After months of talk, and two weeks of negotiations, after innumerable side meetings, bilateral meetings, endless hours of discussion among negotiators, I believe that the pieces of that accord should now be clear,” he said.

He also took a jab at China, which pledged to cut its “carbon intensity,” which refers to emissions for a given amount of economic activity, but refused to accept a binding verification system.

“I don’t know how you have an international agreement where we all are not sharing information and assuring that we are meeting our commitments. That doesn’t make sense. It would be a hollow victory,” Mr. Obama said.

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