U.N. Climate Conference Seeks Tougher Commitments on Warming

Climate experts from more than 100 countries sought tougher commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions and turn the tide on global warming as they opened a weeklong U.N. conference Monday.

Yvo de Boer, the U.N.'s top climate official, pointed to the European Union's recent goal of reducing emissions by 20 percent by 2020 — and by another 10 percent if other nations join in — as an example of what can be done.

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"That's exactly the kind of thing that developing countries are looking for from rich countries," he said.

A new report by the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change warns that governments and the private sector will have to spend about US$210 billion a year — mostly in the developing world — to maintain greenhouse gas emissions at their current levels in 2030.

Over the next two decades, the world is projected to spend US$20 trillion on energy, and delegates are trying to ensure those investments are as environmentally friendly as possible.

The Vienna meeting, which runs through Friday, is part of a flurry of talks leading up to a major international climate summit in Bali, Indonesia, in December.

De Boer said there would be no "spectacular decisions" made this week. But he said delegates would try to forge a practical way forward before two other key pre-Bali sessions: a Sept. 24 meeting at U.N. headquarters in New York, and a meeting three days later in Washington of the world's 15 biggest polluters, including the U.S., China and India.

De Boer praised U.S. President George W. Bush for arranging that meeting and for sending a delegation he said was "fully engaged" in this week's talks.

But he also took a good-natured jab at Washington, which has refused to ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Among other things, the landmark treaty requires 35 industrial nations to cut their global-warming emissions 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.

"I guess you could say President Bush has taken the bull by the horns. The question now is where will Bush and the bull go," de Boer said, provoking laughter.

China also has come under scrutiny at the Vienna meeting.

Beijing has committed itself to cutting energy consumption by 20 percent per unit of gross domestic product, along with a 10 percent cut in major pollutants, between 2006 and 2010.

But it failed to hit its initial targets last year, and by some accounts already has overtaken the U.S. as the world's biggest polluter.

De Boer, however, said China and other developing nations such as India, Mexico and South Africa deserve credit for setting ambitious goals to slash the amount of ozone-eating gases they emit.

"There's this myth out there that developing countries are doing nothing," he said. "It's not true."

Experts working to craft a road map for slowing or even reversing climate change after Kyoto expires are struggling to strike a balance between what rich and poor countries can do.

One key option, de Boer said, might be to broaden the "menu of choices" now available to countries, such as financing "clean and green" hydroelectric or wind power.

But Leon Charles, a negotiator from the Caribbean nation of Grenada who is helping oversee the Vienna talks, said experts also were trying to rough out targets that industrialized countries might be willing to agree to in Bali.

Forging even a general, non-binding consensus on how far to cut emissions "will send a very strong message that developed countries are taking the climate change problem seriously," he said.