Last updated: November 15, 2009 6:43 pm

Obama rules out Copenhagen treaty

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Barack Obama, US president, leaves Air Force One on his arrival in Shanghai©AFP

Step by step: Barack Obama, US president, leaves Air Force One on his arrival on Sunday in Shanghai for a three-day visit to China

Barack Obama conceded on Sunday that next month’s Copenhagen summit would not produce a legally binding agreement to tackle global warming, but left the door open to a substantive deal at the climate change conference.

Speaking at a conference of Asian countries Mr Obama confirmed what the United Nations, the European Union and other countries had already admitted – that there would not be time for a fully articulated treaty to be drawn up at the summit.

“We should not make the perfect the enemy of the good,” Mr Obama told delegates at the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation in Singapore where his views on Copenhagen were supported by all 21 participants, including China.

US officials said Apec members, which account for almost two-thirds of global carbon emissions, had reached a consensus on a “one agreement, two steps” formula laid out by Lars Rasmussen, the Danish prime minister. Mr Rasmussen was invited at the last minute to fly to Singapore and address a breakfast gathering of the leaders.

Under this approach, Copenhagen would produce an agreement on the substantive issues, which are: developed nations must agree substantial cuts to their emissions by 2020; developing countries must agree to take certain measures to curb the future growth of their emissions; rich countries must provide finance to poor countries to help them achieve their goals and cope with the effects of climate change; governance structures must be outlined, to deliver the above objectives.

Countries would have to sign a document setting out the above, which would not have legal force but which would be “politically binding” – in other words, a public commitment that would be difficult and embarrassing for governments to renege upon.

Lawyers could produce a fully articulated treaty ready for signature by world leaders or their representatives, either at a UN conference in Bonn next June or at the next climate change summit in Mexico City in December 2010.

Leaders would aim in Copenhagen to produce what Mr Rasmussen described as a “politically binding” agreement that would cover mitigation, adaption, finance and technology. US officials said Mr Obama saw Mr Rasmussen’s approach as more palatable than taking the risk of aiming for a treaty in Copenhagen and failing.

“The two-step [approach] is meant to reflect that I think there was an assessment by the leaders that it was unrealistic to expect a full internationally legally binding agreement to be negotiated between now and when Copenhagen starts in 22 days time,” said Michael Froman, a senior economic advisor to Mr Obama.

Last month, the UN’s top climate change official admitted for the first time in an interview with the Financial Times that the Copenhagen summit could not produce a legally binding agreement, which prompted howls of outrage from environmental groups.

But countries participating in the summit said it was simply a recognition of fact, and that it would not prevent a deal being reached at Copenhagen that would put the world on course to tackle climate change.

Diane McFadzien, a spokesperson for WWF, said Apec leaders had “missed a great opportunity to move the world closer to a fair, ambitious and binding agreement”.

She added that the leaders had to “take the bull by the horns, and finally tackle the difficult questions, instead of constantly avoiding them”.

However, even reaching a politically binding agreement will be tough. Mr Obama still faces great difficulty in meeting two of the four objectives of a Copenhagen deal – setting out the US’s commitments to cut emissions by 2020, and setting out how much finance the US would be prepared to make available to poor countries.

These commitments could be made if a bill now before the US Senate, setting out cap-and-trade legislation, were to be passed by the end of the Copenhagen summit. This is almost certainly not possible, and the future of the bill is in doubt.

If Mr Obama does not have the explicit support of the Senate, the administration may find it impossible to agree to any deal at Copenhagen and this would mean the whole process could break down in discord and acrimony.

Despite the retreat on a legally binding treaty, Mr Rasmussen told the Apec leaders in his address that great progress could still be made in Copenhagen – and he urged all the world leaders, including Mr Obama, to attend.

“Even if we may not hammer out the last dots of a legally binding instrument, I do believe a politically binding agreement with specific commitment to mitigation and finance provides a strong basis for immediate action in the years to come,” said Mr Rasmussen. “We are not aiming to let anyone off the hook.”

It was unclear how many Apec leaders agreed to go to Denmark next month. Yukio Hatoyama, the Japanese prime minister, indicated that he was willing to attend, and Kevin Rudd, the Australian prime minister, has already said he will go. Mr Obama has not yet decided.

Kazuo Kodama, press secretary to Mr Hatoyama, said several leaders had called for compromise on climate change targets, arguing that the Copenhagen meeting should not be allowed to fail because it was unable to produce a perfect deal.

The Apec leaders promised in their final summit statement “to work towards an ambitious outcome in Copenhagen”. But they failed to set any specific targets for cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, in spite of pressure from developed countries, including Japan and Australia.

Hu Jintao, the Chinese president, gave no details of any changes in China’s approach in his statement. He repeated Beijing’s established demand for developed countries to take the lead in greenhouse gas emissions.

There were reports that China and Indonesia were instrumental in preventing stronger language from being included in the Apec communiqué.

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