U.S., China Leaders Make Last Push for Climate Deal

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By Dean Scott

Nov. 30— Just a year after they jointly announced new pledges to cut carbon pollution under a global climate accord, President Barack Obama and China President Xi Jinping jetted to Paris in hopes of pushing negotiators across the finish line on the agreement at a two-week summit.

“Let's get to work,” Obama said after his remarks at the Nov. 30 opening of the two-week United Nations climate summit, where negotiators hope to conclude the first truly global agreement committing developed and developing nations alike to climate action.

Obama in his remarks touted his November 2014 pledge to cut U.S. emissions 26 percent to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025 and said the nation is on track to meet its 2009 pledge to curb emissions 17 percent from the same 2005 baseline by 2020 (219 DEN A-8, 11/13/14).

But Obama, who joined more than 150 leaders and other heads of state in speaking at the summit, pressed negotiators to include ways to strengthen the agreement, perhaps every five years or so, to make future emissions cuts without opening the deal to renegotiation.

“Let's secure an agreement that builds in ambition, where progress paves the way for regularly updated targets,” he said.

Obama Urges Transparency

The president also said negotiators should “agree to a strong system of transparency that gives each of us the confidence that all of us are meeting our commitments.” He added that countries “who don't yet have the full capacity to report on their targets [should] receive the support that they need” to ensure the actions they pledged to cut emissions can be verified.

China's president reiterated his nation's 2014 pledge to peak its carbon emissions, after which they would presumably decline, by around 2030. Xi said his rapidly developing nation, now the world's largest emitter, would “strive to achieve” peak emissions “as soon as possible” and echoed Obama's call for reaching an agreement in Paris.

“Tackling climate change is a shared mission for mankind,” Xi said, urging negotiators to establish “an equitable and effective global mechanism on climate change.”

“All eyes are now on Paris,” China's president said.

However, Xi offered fewer specifics than his U.S. counterpart on what the deal should include.

At Odds Over Legal Nature?

The two leaders' remarks masked in many ways the deep divisions that still exist as the Nov. 30-Dec. 11 climate talks got under way at the La Bourget airfield north of central Paris.

The debate over the legal nature of the Paris deal and whether it should be a legally binding treaty continued to simmer just below the surface on the opening day of the talks, formally known as the 21st Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP-21).

The Obama administration opposes a legally binding deal that commits nations to specific emissions reductions because it would likely trigger a requirement that it be submitted to the Republican-controlled Senate, where it would be dead on arrival.

The administration favors instead a hybrid deal combining pledges nations voluntarily put on the table this year with other provisions that could be binding, such as transparency and measuring requirements to verify that nations make good on their emissions pledges.

But there are still many countries calling for the whole deal to be legally binding, including many developing nations hardest hit by climate impacts as well as negotiators from the European Union and the summit's host country, France.

Other Issues Still Unresolved

Russian President Vladimir Putin said in his remarks that the new climate agreement should take into account different circumstances for countries that are still developing. But “it should be a legally binding agreement,” Putin said, one that is “comprehensive, effective and equitable.”

Putin also endorsed putting a global goal in the deal to keep temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) this century compared to pre-industrial times to prevent the worst climate impacts.

In addition to resolving that issue, negotiators in Paris also have to resolve whether to address loss and damage linked to climate impacts from greenhouse gases already emitted by developed nations; and whether developed nations should provide more specifics on the $100-billion-a-year they pledged in climate aid for developing nations.

More for Climate Finance?

South African President Jacob Zuma said developing nations not only need more specifics in the Paris deal about the $100 billion annual pledge—they also, he said, need more money. Climate finance “must be scaled up significantly beyond the $100 billion mark for the post-2020 period,” Zuma said.

“A Paris agreement that is hollow and weak on the provision of means of implementation to support adaptation and mitigation efforts of developing countries will not be acceptable and will furthermore undermine our collective response” to the climate challenge, he said.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who presides over the COP-21 talks, said earlier in the day that negotiators must guard against simply claiming victory in Paris by getting a vague declaration in favor of climate action and instead push for the most ambitious agreement possible. His comments echoed a similar warning voiced last week by U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern (227 DEN A-9, 11/25/15).

“The stakes are too high,” Fabius said at the Nov. 30 opening of the COP-21 talks, “and the menace of climate change is too great for us to be content with a minimalistic agreement.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Dean Scott in Paris at dscott@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com