BONN, Germany – Climate negotiators are seeking ways to make industrial countries continue reducing greenhouse gas emissions after their current commitment expires next year, the top U.N. climate official said Monday.
The expiry of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which bound nearly 40 countries to specific emission reductions targets is the backdrop to one of the most divisive issues as countries seek accord to combat global warming.
Countries generally have fallen into camps of rich and poor on the issue, with developing countries insisting that the Kyoto obligations be extended and industrial countries saying they want emerging economies to accept similar commitments.
But Christiana Figueres, head of the U.N. climate change secretariat, said negotiators appear to be moving outside of those boxes.
"Countries are being much more constructive and creative," she told reporters at the start of a two-week negotiating session attended by 184 nations.
"We don't know yet where it's going to lead, but there is a very healthy atmosphere of really listening to each other," she said.
Reports of record high greenhouse gas emissions and unprecedented carbon levels in the atmosphere added a sense of urgency as the talks began. Also contributing to the apprehension was uncertainty over Japan's future policy, and whether it will adhere to its pledge to reduce emissions by 25 percent after the tsunami-triggered nuclear disaster in March.
"Japan's energy future is in limbo," said analyst Endre Tvinnereim of the consultancy firm Point Carbon. The fallout from the catastrophe has "put climate policy further down the priority list," and the short-term effect in Japan — one of the world's most carbon-efficient countries — will be more burning of fossil fuels, he said.
Despite the expansion of renewable energy around the world, the Paris-based International Energy Agency issued a report that said energy-related carbon emissions last year topped 30 gigatons, 5 percent more than the previous record in 2008. With energy investments locked into coal- and oil-fueled infrastructure, that situation will change little over the next decade, it said.
Figueres cited another report that a Hawaii-based meteorological station had recorded carbon levels of 395 parts per million. The level was estimated to be 290 at the beginning of the industrial revolution 150 years ago.
Fatih Birol, the IEA's chief economist, says the energy trend should be "a wake-up call." The figures are "a serious setback" to hopes of limiting the rise in the Earth's average temperature to 2 degrees Celsius (3.8 F) above preindustrial levels, he said.
Any rise beyond that, scientists believe, could lead to catastrophic climate shifts affecting water supplies and global agriculture, setting off more frequent and fierce storms and causing a rise in sea levels that would endanger coastlines.
The June 6-17 discussions in Bonn will prepare for the annual year-end decision-making U.N. conference, which this year is in Durban, South Africa. Even more than previous conferences, Durban could be the forum for a major showdown between wealthy countries and the developing world.
Poor countries say the wealthy West, whose industries overloaded the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and other climate-changing gases over the past 200 years, is not doing enough to cut future pollution.
A study released Sunday supports that view.
The report, based on an analysis by the Stockholm Environment Institute commissioned and released by Oxfam, evaluated national pledges to cut carbon emissions submitted after the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit. It found that developing countries account for 60 percent of the promised reductions.
The analysis is complicated because countries use different yardsticks and baseline years for measuring reductions.