BARCELONA — The top United Nations authority on climate change said on the final day of the Barcelona Climate Change Talks that a binding treaty aimed at reducing the world's carbon emissions is no longer a possible outcome of the approaching Copenhagen Climate Change Conference.
Yvo de Boer, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework on Climate Change, delivered the news two days after nearly every African delegation walked out of the conference. Frustrated by the lack of commitments made by wealthier nations like the United States, the unified statement made by the African delegates proved a harbinger of things to come.
Since 2007's failed Climate Change Conference in Bali, the world has looked toward Copenhagen to deliver an international treaty capable of enforcing nations' commitments to reduce carbon emissions. As delegations prepare to leave Barcelona, it is hard to determine what commitments have actually been made, nevermind a legal document capable of enforcing them.
Still, de Boer insisted that countries continue to make progress in at the Copenhagen summit beginning just four weeks from now:
"Copenhagen can and must be the turning point in the international fight against climate change—nothing has changed my confidence in that," De Boar said. "A powerful combination of commitment and compromise can and must make this happen."
De Boar, however, did acknowledged his sympathies with developing nations, including the African delegates who left the conference. "I look to industrialized countries to raise their ambitions to meet the scale of the challenge we face," he said. "And I look to industrialized nations for clarity on the amount of short and long-term finance they will commit."
Shortly following de Boar's concluding remarks, the US delegation tried to explain why it had been unable to salvage an international consensus. In the eyes of many, were the US to commit strongly to emissions cuts, other wealthy nations would fall in line behind it.
In less diplomatic language than is customary at UN events, if any country was to blame for the conference's failure, it was clearly the US.
Dr. Stephen Pershing (pictured), leader of the American delegation and the senior American official of climate policy under the Clinton Administration, said the US is doing what it can under the institutional limitations of the federal government.
Pershing pointed out the $80 billion allocated to green projects in President Obama's new stimulus package, and to new automobile efficiency standards set by the administration. If those efforts come up short, Perishing implied, it's because the Congress has not agreed to more ambitious reductions in carbon emissions.
Perhaps more fundamentally, the US does not accept the distinction, made by the African delegates and others, between rich and poor countries, preferring instead to talk about major and minor emitters, a distinction which brings poor countries with large populations, such as India and China, into the same category as the US.
Looking ahead to Copenhagen, where such obstacles do not seem any more surmountable, many heads of state are already announcing their intention to come to the bargaining table in person, including British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
President Obama has yet to say whether he will attend or not.