The challenge in Copenhagen: reshaping the world

AMSTERDAM – Next month’s climate summit in Copenhagen seeks to transform the way we run the planet, from the generation of energy, to the building of homes and cities, to the shaping of the landscape. It would also shift wealth from rich to poor countries in the process.

No wonder a deal will be tough to cut.

In recent weeks, prospects brightened, then dimmed, then revived again.

President Barack Obama dampened expectations when he said during his Asian tour a final package could not be completed at the conference. He then lifted hopes by signaling the U.S. might go further in the talks in the Danish capital than had been expected because of lagging U.S. legislation.

Hoping to nudge negotiations off dead center, key governments have strengthened pledges to control their nations’ greenhouse gases, the heat-trapping emissions blamed for global warming.

But everyone is still waiting to see what the U.S. will do.

The major economies “are coming to Copenhagen ready to fill in the blanks. They are all looking to see what happens in Congress, and what the U.S. is able to bring to the table,” said climate analyst Jennifer Morgan of the World Resources Institute, a Washington think tank.

Facing mounting impatience, the U.S. delegation could bring a provisional number to the conference, promising at least a 17 percent cut in greenhouse gases over the next decade, measured against 2005 – a number drawn from bills awaiting congressional approval.

“It’s a bit of a balancing act,” said U.S. analyst Alden Meyer, of the Union of Concerned Scientists. The Obama administration wants to satisfy the international demand for clarity without seeming to pre-empt U.S. lawmakers, “providing ammunition for opponents in the Senate.”

More than 65 heads of government will attend the final days of the Dec. 7-18 conference, investing personal prestige in the outcome. They include the leaders of Britain, France, Germany, Australia, Brazil, Indonesia, Japan and Spain.

Success is a matter of definition. Two years ago, when negotiations began, delegates anticipated a full treaty would be signed in Copenhagen to succeed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which set emissions limits on 37 industrial countries. The U.S. rejected Kyoto because it imposed no obligations for China, India and other rapidly emerging economies.

Now the Danish hosts and the United Nations say it will be enough to nail down all the political elements, leaving the details, technical issues and legal language to be filled in over the following six months to a year.

Many developing countries say that’s not good enough, and insist Copenhagen aims for a full-fledged legal document.

The divide over Copenhagen’s goals reflects an abiding distrust between manufacturing powerhouses that built vast riches over 200 years, while spewing carbon dioxide and other industrial gases into the atmosphere, and countries still struggling to end hunger within their borders.

A new militant African bloc could complicate the Copenhagen negotiations. The 50 or so nations briefly walked out of committee meetings at the last round of talks in Spain earlier this month, alleging Western countries were not negotiating in good faith.

Whatever agreements emerge on Copenhagen’s numerous issues, they must be accepted by all 192 countries.