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Climate deal delayed, world leaders search for common ground Add to ...

Forget any prospect of a momentous climate treaty being signed in Copenhagen.

Hopes that Copenhagen would drive swift global action on emissions faded as leaders at an Asia-Pacific summit in Singapore Sunday acknowledged there will not be a final deal at next month's United Nations climate-change summit in the Danish capital. They held out hope that the essential political compromises could be nailed down, paving the way for a treaty signing next year.

The delay points to major divisions among developed countries and between the rich world and increasingly powerful emerging economies. It raises the prospect of endless bickering over who bears responsibility for cutting emissions.

World leaders are now desperately trying to find common ground for a broad political agreement that would prevent utter failure in Copenhagen.

Key to that effort is Tuesday's meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao, the so-called Group of Two of the global economy. As the world's two largest emitters - producing fully 40 per cent of greenhouse-gas emissions per year - the United States and China are trying to narrow their differences over what role each will play in a global solution to the problem.

But huge gaps remain between the two. And both countries face major hurdles at home in their efforts to reduce emissions.

Mr. Obama is in the midst of a tough effort to get climate legislation through the U.S. Congress, and the shape of any political agreement in Copenhagen - particularly commitments made by China - would have a major influence on that effort.

Mr. Hu, for his part, is eager to demonstrate China is willing to play a leadership role in the battle against climate change, but refuses to be tied down by international commitments that could threaten his country's effort to lift its vast population out of poverty.

Mr. Obama and his Chinese counterpart are expected to sign a series of deals to co-operate on clean energy and other emission-reduction technologies, including capturing carbon dioxide from smokestacks and permanently storing it underground.

But the thorny issue of China's international commitments remains.

Beijing insists it is serious about addressing climate change, and has devoted a major portion of its $586-billion (U.S.) stimulus plan to emission-reducing, clean-energy projects. However, Chinese leaders have refused to subject their climate policy to international agreement by enshrining it in a global climate accord.Beijing's stand will reverberate through Washington, where some members of Congress are reluctant to pass a climate-change law that would drive up costs for U.S. industry if Beijing refuses to agree to binding commitments of its own. Several leading senators have expressed fears that energy-intensive industries will shift production to China and other emerging nations to take advantage of lower emissions standards - a concern shared by the Canadian government.

The House of Representatives has passed climate legislation, but the Senate is now debating its bill, and the Democratic leadership needs 60 votes to get the legislation passed. And it is unlikely the legislation will be approved before the December meeting in Copenhagen, where countries hope to reach a political agreement on what measures both developed and developing nations will adopt to address climate change.

In the negotiations leading to Copenhagen, the United States, Canada and other developed countries have acknowledged that emerging economies like China's need greater flexibility that would allow emissions to continue to rise - albeit at a slower pace. But they insist China accept some level of binding commitment.

Mr. Obama is said to be looking for progress toward a compromise in China that would allow global leaders to declare victory in Copenhagen - a goal that is likely to prove elusive.

"The idea that there is going to be a pre-negotiated agreement between the U.S. and China is almost certainly misguided," said Kenneth Lieberthal, a China expert at Washington's Brookings Institution.

"The U.S. and China remain apart on some key issues and it will be difficult for the two sides to resolve those during a visit. We need to translate domestic efforts into international commitments, and agree how to monitor those commitments."

And at the Asia-Pacific summit, Mr. Hu gave no indication that he is prepared to move off his long-held positions. While the Chinese government is pursuing a series of measures to reduce emissions, they're not willing to hand over the enforcement of those measures to an international agreement.

In the five-year plan that expires at the end of 2010, China set targets for energy efficiency - or reducing the amount of energy consumed per dollar of gross domestic product - in order to increase competitiveness, bolster energy security and reduce pollution.

Chinese officials are now expected to table a key part of their five-year plan at Copenhagen: national targets for greenhouse-gas emissions per unit of GDP, the same kind of emission-intensity targets that the Canadian government has proposed for this country's growing oil-sands sector.

The Asian giant is also promising massive investments in clean technology - such as more efficient technology, wind power and nuclear - to reduce its reliance on coal and other fossil fuels.

In Singapore Sunday, leaders endorsed a call by Danish Prime Minister Lars Rasmussen to focus on achieving a political accord in Copenhagen.

"Given the time factor and the situation of individual countries, we must, in the coming weeks, focus on what is possible and not let ourselves be distracted by what is not possible," Mr. Rasmussen told the leaders after flying in for the session.

Some 40 environment ministers, including Canada's Jim Prentice, are scheduled to meet in the Danish capital this week to negotiate over the proposed political accord.

Although some environmentalists and some nations are dismayed at the delay in reaching a final deal, leaders will be hard-pressed to forge even a broad consensus over the next month.

And there is some fear talks could drag on interminably, much like global free-trade talks at the World Trade Organization. "That certainly is one of the prospects," said John Drexhage, Ottawa-based climate director at the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

However, there is hope that if the United States can pass climate legislation next year, countries will be able to conclude a deal. Still a single world-changing treaty is unlikely, said Mark Jaccard, a Simon Fraser University researcher.

"Politicians want to have a press conference at which they say, 'We just made the deal that will save the planet.' But in reality, I think we're in for a couple decades of annual re-negotiations of this thing that we're trying to do," he said.

The delay could prompt Ottawa to further put off the release of regulations needed to meet its target of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 20 per cent from 2006 levels by 2020.

Once planning to outline the regulatory approach this fall, Mr. Prentice now says the government must await the outcome of the U.S. legislative process - as well as international negotiations - before determining its own path forward.

Follow on Twitter: @smccarthy55

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