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The Tiempo Climate Cyberlibrary was developed by Mick Kelly and Sarah Granich on behalf of the Stockholm Environment Institute and the International Institute for Environment and Development, with sponsorship from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.

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There has been considerable movement in climate politics in recent months, with the United Nations promoting high-level engagement and the United States staking a claim to leadership. Newswatch editors Mick Kelly and Sarah Granich report.

The latest round of negotiations regarding the future of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Vienna Climate Change Talks 2007, took place at the end of August 2007.

At the Vienna meeting, participants agreed that the goal of global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels of 25 to 40 per cent by the year 2020, proposed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), provides "useful initial parameters for the overall level of ambition of further emissions reductions." Though some had hoped for a firmer endorsement, the IPCC recommendation is likely to act as a guide for future discussions.

UNFCCC Executive Secretary, Yvo de Boer, felt that the Vienna meeting had made significant progress. "Countries have been able to reassess the big picture of what is needed by identifying the key building blocks for an effective response to climate change," he said. "There is a consensus that the response needs to be global, with the involvement of all countries and that it needs to give equal importance to adaptation and mitigation." Stephanie Tunmore of Greenpeace described the outcome as "a sign that climate negotiations are moving forward."

There has certainly been some movement in the position taken by the Bush administration in the United States. George W Bush, president of the United States, has been directly involved in a series of initiatives in recent months aimed at staking a claim to leadership on the climate issue. Or, according to some commentators, undermining the United Nations climate negotiations.

In August, Greenpeace accused Australia and the United States of attempting to drive the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum into an "anti-Kyoto" agenda. The accusation was based on a leaked outline of a statement on climate change to be released by APEC leaders at a summit that month in Sydney, Australia. The draft statement advocated an "aspirational" goal for energy efficiency that would not translate into targets for individual APEC economies and would not be legally binding or enforceable.

"It's a continuation of business as usual - coal and oil use," said Catherine Fitzpatrick of Greenpeace Australia Pacific. "We're in a really sad situation. We have two nations writing a declaration that is ‘made in the USA' and covered in a thick coating of Australian coal dust," she continued.

Technological approaches to the climate issue were to the forefront at the Sydney summit. "If you truly care about greenhouse gases, then you'll support nuclear power," Bush announced in the days before the APEC summit. "Nuclear is a dead end, high risk technology and the proposed research and development will not realize anything for decades. It represents a great missed opportunity for real action at APEC," responded Dave Sweeney for the Australian Conservation Foundation.

"The world needs to slow, stop and then reverse the growth of global greenhouse gas emissions," according to the Sydney Declaration, agreed by the APEC leaders. The Declaration sets a non-binding energy intensity target - an APEC-wide reduction of at least 25 per cent from the 2005 level by the year 2030 - while acknowledging the historic responsibility of the wealthier nations for the climate problem. It also includes a commitment to increase regional forest cover by at least 50 million acres by 2020. The statement affirms that climate change negotiations should take place under the auspices of the United Nations. The fact that the statement was endorsed by APEC developing nations, including China, was seen as a major achievement.

In September, Bush hosted a conference in Washington DC to discuss his plan for a technology-based approach to the climate problem. "It is important that the United States is bringing together the group of major emitters to talk about the kind of reductions they can commit to," said Yvo de Boer. But, he continued, "what is even more important is the United States' indication that ultimately their intention is to bring this back to the United Nations process."

Environmentalists are concerned that Bush is attempting to undermine the United Nations process. The meeting was held three days after a high-level event on climate change, convened by Ban Ki-moon, United Nations Secretary-General, in New York. Martin Khor of the Third World Network reckoned that the "clash of the two events is the latest sign that the United States President is planning to establish a global framework for dealing with climate change that could be inside or outside of the United Nations system."

At the meeting in Washington, Bush called on "all the world's largest producers of greenhouse gas emissions, including developed and developing nations," to come together and "set a long-term goal for reducing" greenhouse emissions. "By next summer, we will convene a meeting of heads of state to finalize the goal and other elements of this approach, including a strong and transparent system for measuring our progress toward meeting the goal we set," he continued. "Only by doing the necessary work this year will it be possible to reach a global consensus at the United Nations in 2009."

There was scepticism regarding Bush's claim to leadership on the climate issue. "This is a total charade," said one delegate, speaking anonymously to the BBC, as Bush's meeting took place. "The president has said he will lead on climate change but he won't agree binding emissions, while other nations will. He says he will lead on technology but then he asks other countries to contribute funds, without saying how much he'll contribute himself. It's humiliating for him - a total humiliation."

"The time for doubt [over climate change] has passed," said Ban Ki-moon, as government leaders gathered for the high-level event at the United Nations in New York. Ki-moon called for a new global commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions. "We know enough to act," he said. "If we don't act now, the impact of climate change will be devastating."

At the New York meeting, Lawrence Gonzi, prime minister of Malta, argued that a mechanism was needed to devise a global strategy on climate "in a more cohesive and concerted manner," avoiding the current fragmentation and paying particular attention to the needs of small island states. "It is imperative that all actors involved in climate risk reduction take a unified stand," he said.

Achim Steiner, head of the United Nations Environment Programme, welcomed the New York meeting as an example of the "unprecedented momentum of public and political pressure" on environmental issues. Citing the recent agreement on eliminating hydrochlorofluorocarbons as "just one more signal that shows that the United Nations is perfectly capable of convening international consensus if indeed Member States are willing to come to the table and work together," he said that "a qualitatively different political understanding" should now underpin the next stage of the climate negotiations, which will be held in December 2007 in Bali, Indonesia.

Further information

The Tiempo Climate Cyberlibrary provides hourly coverage of climate news. For further discussion of recent climate negotiating meetings, visit Earth Negotiations Bulletin.

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Tiempo Climate Newswatch
Updated: April 12th 2013