/ 15 December 2009

Climate negotiators in race against time

United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon heads to global climate talks on Tuesday warning that negotiators face a race against time to prevent the meeting ending in catastrophic failure after developing nations staged a five-hour walkout.

The 12-day gathering was plunged into further acrimony when the world’s biggest polluter China also accused the West of trickery and trying to blame it for any failure in Copenhagen to hammer out a pact to combat global warming.

United States President Barack Obama, whose country is the second biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, said he wants a deal that imposes ”meaningful steps”.

But ministers admitted they had to start making giant strides before Obama and about 120 other heads of state and government gather for a summit at the climax of the troubled talks.

”Time is running out,” Ban told reporters in New York before he was to leave for Copenhagen.

”If everything is left to leaders to resolve at the last minute, we risk having a weak deal or no deal at all. And this would be a failure of potentially catastrophic consequence.”

The conference hit more turbulence on Monday when Africa led a boycott by developing nations of working groups, only returning after securing guarantees the summit would not sideline talks about the future of the Kyoto Protocol.

The 1997 core emissions-curbing treaty — which does not include the US — ties the rich countries that have ratified it to binding emissions curbs, but not developing nations.

The talks have already been marred by spats between the US and China, which is spearheading a drive for rich nations to help the developing world fight climate change.

The White House said Obama, who is due to address the conference on Friday, was ”committed to pursuing an accord that requires countries to take meaningful steps”, but acknowledged there was a great deal of work to be done.

”There’s no doubt that there are issues that will remain outstanding for quite some time,” spokesperson Robert Gibbs said.

The summit’s daunting goal is to tame greenhouse gases — the invisible by-product derived mainly from the burning of coal, oil and gas that traps the sun’s heat and warms the atmosphere.

Scientists say that without drastic action within the next decade, earth will be on course for warming that will inflict drought, flood, storms and rising sea levels, translating into hunger and misery for many millions.

”We are running against time. The world has waited long enough,” said Swedish Environment Minister Andreas Carlgren, whose country holds the revolving EU presidency.

In an apparent concession, China said it might not take a share of any Western funding for emerging nations to fight climate change.

But Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei insisted China would not be the fall guy if there were a fiasco.

”I know people will say if there is no deal that China is to blame. This is a trick played by the developed countries. They have to look at their own position and can’t use China as an excuse,” he told the Financial Times.

The G77 group of developing nations complained they were being excluded from key negotiations by conference chair Denmark.

”We are faced with a process in which we have no hand. We are very concerned,” G77 coordinator Bernadita de Castro Muller told reporters, charging that the process was ”totally undemocratic, totally untransparent”.

European Union Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso voiced fears of failure.

”How are we going to look on Friday or Saturday if there are more than 100 heads of state and government from all over the world and that what we say to the world is that it was not possible to come to an agreement?” he said.

The stakes were underlined when a new UN report said about 58-million people have been affected by 245 natural calamities this year, more than 90% of them weather events amplified by climate change.

Climate guru Al Gore warned that the record melting of glaciers worldwide could deprive more than a billion people of access to fresh water.

Greenpeace declared that the summit had five days ”to avert climate chaos”, saying emissions targets so far offered by Western leaders amounted to ”peanuts”.

In Australia, protesters scaled Sydney’s Opera House to demand world leaders settle their differences, unfurling a huge banner saying ”Stop the Politics — Climate Treaty Now”.

Danish police had stormed a giant Copenhagen squat on Monday, firing tear gas and arresting 210 demonstrators who had set alight barricades. — AFP