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Published: Sunday, 12/11/2011

Breakthrough deal ends climate talks

New plan would apply to all nations

BLADE NEWS SERVICES

DURBAN, South Africa -- A U.N. climate conference reached agreement early Sunday on a far-reaching program to set a new course for the fight against climate change for the coming decades.

The 194-party conference agreed to start talks on a new accord that puts all countries under the same legal regime enforcing commitments to control greenhouse gases.

It would take effect by 2020 at the latest.

The deal also set up the bodies that will collect, govern, and distribute tens of billions of dollars a year to poor countries to help them adapt to changing climate conditions and to move toward low-carbon economic growth.

Only industrial countries had legally binding emissions targets under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Those commitments expire next year, but they will be extended five years under the accord adopted Sunday.

The Durban Platform offered answers to problems that bedeviled global warming talks for years about sharing the responsibility for controlling carbon emissions and helping the world's poorest and most climate-vulnerable nations cope with changing forces of nature.

The United States was a reluctant supporter, concerned about agreeing to join an international climate system that likely would find much opposition in Congress.

"This is a very significant package. None of us likes everything in it. Believe me, there is plenty the United States is not thrilled about," U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern said.

But the package captured important advances that would be undone if it is rejected, he told the delegates.

The breakthrough capped 13 days of hectic negotiations that ran a day and a half over schedule, including two round-the-clock days that left negotiators bleary-eyed and stumbling with words.

Delegates were seen nodding off in the final plenary session, despite the high drama, barely constrained emotions, and uncertainty whether the talks would end in triumph or total collapse.

The nearly fatal issue involved the legal nature of the accord that will govern carbon emissions by the turn of the next decade.

A plan put forward by the European Union sought strong language that would bind all countries equally to carry out their emissions commitments.

India led the objectors.

India's Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan argued that the EU proposal undermined the 20-year-old principle that developing countries have less responsibility than the industrial nations that caused the global warming problem through 200 years of pollution.

"The equity of burden-sharing cannot be shifted," Ms. Natarajan said.

The debate ran past midnight and grew tense as speakers lined up almost evenly on one side or the other.

Conference president Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, who is South Africa's foreign minister, called a recess and told the EU and India delegates to work together and come up with a compromise formula.

After weeks of failing to resolve the issue, Ms. Nkoana-Mashabane gave Ms. Natarajan and European Commissioner Connie Hedegaard 10 minutes to find a solution.

"It is my assessment that we have reached an agreement," Ms. Nkoana-Mashabane said. "I think we all realize they [the agreement details] are not perfect. But we should not let the perfect become the enemy of the good and the possible."

The discussions took a bitter turn early Sunday.

Venezuelan climate envoy Claudia Salerno said she had received threats because she objected to the draft texts.

She did not say who made the threat and delegates heard her allegation in silence.

Much of the discussion has focused on a European Union plan designed to push major polluters -- from developed and fast-growing emerging economies like China and India -- to accept legally binding cuts in their greenhouse gas emissions.

Behind the back and forth over language and technical details, the talks boiled down to a tussle between the United States, which said all polluters should be held to the same legal standard on emissions cuts, and China and India, which want to ensure their fast-growing economies are not shackled.

The first phase of the Kyoto Protocol only included developed nations, but since it was adopted in 1997, the division between the developed and developing world has shifted and China has overtaken the United States as the biggest carbon emitter.

Scientists warn that time is running out to close the gap between current pledges on cutting greenhouse gases and avoiding a catastrophic rise in average global temperatures.

Many scientists concur that a warming planet already has intensified droughts and floods, increased crop failures, and sea levels could rise to levels that would submerge several small island nations, who are holding out for more ambitious targets in emissions cuts.



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