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paris climate talks

U.S. President Barack Obama says certain aspects of the Paris climate deal – the procedures and review – must carry legal force.Evan Vucci/The Associated Press

President Barack Obama said Tuesday he would accept a Paris climate agreement that has some "legally binding" elements, setting up a battle with Senate Republicans who insist on the right to ratify on any deal that would have force of law in the United States.

Leaders who converged on Paris this week for the United Nations climate summit are looking for a compromise that would satisfy the United States and other large emitters, who are reluctant to make binding commitments, and Europeans and developing countries who are pushing for a formal treaty. In opening the summit, French President François Hollande urged the 195 nations to reach an accord that is "universal, differentiated and binding."

In a news conference before departing Paris Tuesday, Mr. Obama vowed the U.S. will show leadership both in Paris and in implementing a deal that would drive down emissions and provide aid to poorer nations to confront climate-change challenges.

And he said the U.S. will be bound by the accountability provisions that are part of an agreement, despite the carping from congressional Republicans.

"Although the targets themselves may not have the force of treaties, the process – the procedures that ensure transparency and periodic reviews – that needs to be legally binding. And that's going to be critical in us having high ambitions and holding each other accountable," the President said.

The U.S. ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, and the administration takes the view that it can make procedural commitments under that framework without congressional approval, so long as they do not include specific targets for greenhouse-gas emissions reductions.

The U.S. has pledged to cut emissions by up to 28 per cent from 2005 levels by 2025, and pledged to provide $3-billion (U.S.) for the UN Green Climate Fund, which is meant to help developing countries cope with climate change.

Congressional Republicans – many of whom are skeptical about the threat of climate change – clearly disagree with that interpretation, and have warned other nations that they should not count on Mr. Obama's commitments. They vow to block financing of the green fund; developing countries are demanding such funding be part any deal.

In a vote last month, Republicans passed a "sense of the Senate" resolution, declaring that any Paris agreement with binding measures "shall have no force and effect in the United States" until it is submitted to the legislative chamber for consent.

"The international community needs to be aware that the U.S. Congress and the American people do not support President Obama's international climate change agenda," Republican Senator Jim Inhofe said in a statement when he introduced the resolution. If there is a binding agreement, "there is no way around the Senate," said Mr. Inhofe, who is the chair of the Energy and Public Works committee and a prominent skeptic on climate change.

Canada's Environment Minister Catherine McKenna acknowledged that, while a legally binding treaty would be desirable, it is more important to have the U.S. and major emitters like China, be part of any agreement that emerges in Paris. Ottawa is pushing to have legal obligations that are more process-oriented, including making commitments on emissions targets, having those reviewed in five years, and adhering to accountability rules laid out in an agreement, Ms. McKenna said in a conference call last week.

European nations, including France, have been pushing for a full treaty that would include enforcement mechanisms and penalties for non-compliance, but such a deal was never likely given the American political situation and reluctance of some major emerging countries like India.

"If we could get a legally binding agreement with a compliance regime, that would be nirvana," David Runnalls, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont., said in an interview from Paris. "But I don't think we have a hope in hell of doing that."

Instead, he said, the U.S. and Canada are focused on establishing an international regime for monitoring, reporting and verification of each country's emission-reduction commitment. China, India and other large developing countries have resisted such international verification, though China's bilateral deal with the Americans commits to some level of transparency.

At the same time, many experts question whether any deal would truly be "legally binding," given the ability of countries to withdraw from a treaty, as the former Harper government did with the Kyoto Protocol in 2011 as the country was falling short of its 2012 targets.

"The Kyoto Protocol really didn't stop anybody from walking away, and didn't really force anybody to do anything," said Sarah Ladislaw, director of the energy and national security program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Ms. Ladislaw said it is not clear binding commitments are preferable to voluntary ones, given that countries have to use political will and domestic policies to achieve either. She said Congress may be able to block any dramatic increase in U.S. climate aid for poorer countries.

"The pledges we've put forward so far are relatively well-protected," she said in an interview. "But any sort of dramatic increase in that money is going to be really hard to achieve because there is just so much scrutiny."