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Leaders Reach Climate Accord, but Skepticism Remains

December 18, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Leaders from the U.S., China, India and South Africa have reached a "meaningful agreement" on combating global warming at the international climate summit in Copenhagen, but many officials say the deal fell short of expectations. Ray Suarez reports.

JIM LEHRER: The big climate change summit wound down today, and President Obama claimed an unprecedented breakthrough. It didn’t include legally binding targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, the president said nations will set out goals with a way to verify their actions.

He spoke this evening in Copenhagen, Denmark.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What I think that some people are going to legitimately ask is, well, if it’s not legally binding, what prevents us from, 10 years from now, looking and saying, you know, everybody fell short of these goals, and there’s no consequences to it?

My response is that, A, that’s why I think we should still drive towards something that is more binding than it is. But that wasn’t achievable at this conference.

JIM LEHRER: Ray Suarez reports from Copenhagen.

RAY SUAREZ: The president signaled early on that a nonbinding agreement was the best that could be hoped for out of this process. If the delegates and heads of states had wanted a brand-new position from President Obama, they knew they weren’t going to get it when he told the conference that a deal that was imperfect but could be fixed later was better than no deal at all.

BARACK OBAMA: We can embrace this accord, take a substantial step forward, continue to refine it, and build upon its foundation. We can do that, and everyone who is in this room will be part of an historic endeavor, one that makes life better for our children and our grandchildren.

RAY SUAREZ: The president had arrived in the Danish capital hours earlier, amid stiff winds and driving snow, and headed toward the convention center, where delegates had worked through the night trying to draft a climate document the world could agree to.

As the conference shook itself awake Friday morning, U.S. Congressmen Henry Waxman and Edward Markey, sponsors of a sweeping emissions control bill that’s already passed the House, said they felt there had been movement toward an agreement, though such optimism was in short supply.

The main meeting hall began to fill with world leaders, who sought out a smiling Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao for a handshake or a photo. It was a reminder of China’s new clout on the world stage, and, as speaker after speaker has noted during days of debate, the fact that any global compact on climate change depends on just two countries, the two that account for something approaching half of all the world’s emissions, the United States and China.

For his part, the premier also made no new offers. Instead, he stuck firm to China’s position throughout the Copenhagen conference that his country had laid out ambitious goals, was sticking to them, and didn’t want the interference that comes with verification of reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

WEN JIABAO, premier, China (through translator): With a sense of responsibility to Chinese people and all mankind, the voluntary action China has taken, we have not attached any condition to the target, nor have we linked it to the target of any other country. Whatever this conference may produce, we remain committed to reaching and even exceeding the target,

RAY SUAREZ: But Mr. Obama pressed the Chinese leader again on verification. He insisted it would be critical to making any agreement work.

BARACK OBAMA: These measures need not be intrusive or infringe upon sovereignty. They must, however, ensure that an accord is credible, and that we are living up to our mutual obligations. Without such accountability, any agreement would be empty words on a page.

RAY SUAREZ: As the president spoke, the conference came to a complete stop. The public corridors and plazas packed with delegates and activists from around the world hung on his every word.

Monitors took the speech to every corner of the complex. After delivering their speeches, Premier Wen and President Obama held their first meeting of the day. It lasted for 55 minutes. And according to a White House official, the two made progress.

Mulipola Ausetalia Titimaea is a delegate to the talks from Samoa, a tiny Pacific island worried about rising oceans.

MULIPOLA AUSETALIA TITIMAEA, Samoa: Most of the smaller island countries, if we do not cut back on the emissions, they will certainly be under the ocean, the Pacific Ocean, in the near future. And, certainly, these two superpowers need to commit — make commitment to their commitments in reducing the emissions.

RAY SUAREZ: Jocelyn Dow, an environmental activist from Guyana, said she wanted and expected more from the American president.

JOCELYN DOW, Guyana: But, for us in the rest of the world, I think we would have wanted something path-breaking, frankly, climate-changing in this process, and to step up to the issue a little more unpredictably. To be number-two emitter next to China is all well and good, but you have been emitting a lot longer.

RAY SUAREZ: Luiz Inacio Lula ad Silva is one of the rising leaders of the developing world. He delivered a blunt message that the world’s richest nations need to take historical responsibility for global warming and world leaders need the Copenhagen conference to produce a tangible result.

LUIZ INACIO LULA DA SILVA, president, Brazil (through translator): What we do not agree is that the most important figures on planet Earth sign any kind of document or paper just to say we signed a document or a paper. I would love to leave Copenhagen with the most perfect signed document in the world, but if we do not have the conditions to build such a document by now, I am not sure some angel or some wise man will come down to this plenary and will put in our minds some intelligence we lacked up until now.

RAY SUAREZ: Throughout this long day of public and private meetings, there were few indications of the real state of play.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton swept out of the Convention Center this afternoon with no comment on progress or the lack of it.

REPORTER: Madam Secretary, any forward movement today?

JEFFREY BROWN: And Ray is still with us.

So, Ray, what happened there at the end of the day?

RAY SUAREZ: You know, President Obama extended his visit. He was meant to leave Copenhagen hours before he did.

But while there was still a chance that something could be worked out, he stayed on. He invited Premier Wen to two subsequent meetings, which the Chinese premier skipped, sending the deputy foreign minister and his chief investigator instead. Was it a snub? Was it a gambit to move the talks along? Later in the evening, there was a meeting around 7:00 Denmark time with some of the big emitters, some of the big industrial economies, Brazil’s Lula, Manmohan Singh of India, along with Wen Jiabao and of course President Obama.

Those meetings kept on through the evening and finally resulted in an agreement just before midnight, Denmark time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, all week, Ray, we have talked about the big issues, targets, financing, verification. So, what’s in this agreement?

RAY SUAREZ: The most generous thing you can say about it is that it puts off some of the hardest negotiating down into the future. The most near-in targets are left blank, left undefined, while further-out dates, 2050, for instance, when the big industrial economies commit to an 80 percent reduction in their greenhouse emissions, is specifically defined.

There is no architecture set up, though there are general principles laid out for the cash transfer to the least developed economies. This is a deal that doesn’t meet a lot of the targets that many of the countries that came here to negotiate said were their bottom line.

So, there’s bound to be grumbling after what’s now being called the Copenhagen accords start to disseminate out into the world community. And already big international environmental organizations are calling it a sham, calling it an empty deal.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Ray Suarez in Copenhagen all week for us, thanks a lot.