Crisis bodes ill for climate change talks

This photo released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows a pod of narwhals from northern Canada on Aug. 19, 2005. Although the polar bear has become an icon of global warming vulnerability, a new study found an Arctic mammal that may be even more at risk: the narwhal. The study found the whale with the long tusk ranked just ahead of the polar bear and nine other animals. (AP Photo/NOAA, Kristin Laidre) ** NO SALES **
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THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) -- The global financial crisis could hardly come at a worse time for nations seeking a new agreement on climate change that - on top of everything else - will cost tens of billions more dollars.

As Western governments muster more than a trillion dollars to bail out ailing financial institutions, poor countries wonder if there will be any money to rescue them from the predicted ravages of global warming.

Signs of stress on climate issues emerged at a European Union summit in Brussels on Wednesday. Even as the bloc's leaders agreed to stick to ambitious plans to cut greenhouse gases by 20 percent by 2020, but there were deep divisions over how to share the reductions.

Eight eastern European countries said they already made great cuts in carbon emissions since emerging from communism in the late 1980s and that "should be recognized" now. Italy and Germany also sought exemptions for key industries from pollution restrictions, saying they cannot accept new burdens.

And a prominent business lobby said Europe can ill afford to lose any competitive edge because of carbon issues.

Competitiveness "is an important subject that has to be taken into account when any European package is implemented to reduce CO2 emissions," said Ernest-Antoine Seilliere, president of BusinessEurope, which represents 20 million companies.

In an unusual coalition of interests, the leaders of Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia issued a statement urging the EU to balance the wish for a cleaner environment against "the need for sustainable economic growth."

The statement was the latest shot in a long-running internal battle among the EU countries on how to reach the joint target of reducing carbon pollution by 20 percent by 2020. The former Communist countries say they should shoulder less of the burden than their more economically advanced neighbors.

The leaders of Britain, Luxembourg and the European Commission urged the 27-nation EU to hold firm to the carbon-cutting target.

"This is not the time to abandon a climate change agenda," British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, saying the two issues were linked.

EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said dealing with climate change "is not a luxury we now have to forego."

"Saving the planet is not an after-dinner drink, a 'digestif' that you take or leave. Climate change does not disappear because of the financial crisis," he said as the two-day summit convened.

The market meltdown came as climate negotiators head into a crucial year of talks on an agreement to control pollution, which scientists blame for changes that already have begun to occur in the world's climate and which they warn could become catastrophic.

Negotiators reconvene in Poznan, Germany, in December to begin the final phase of talks on an accord to be concluded in December 2009, with much of the discussion focused on funding.

Cost estimates start at $200 billion a year to finance the switch to low carbon economies and to help developing countries adapt to the effects of global warming, from expanding deserts to rising sea levels that threaten coastal populations.

Some climate campaigners see a bright side to the financial crisis. Somehow, the amount needed to fight climate change doesn't seem as unrealistic as it once did after the astronomical amounts governments committed almost overnight to support banks.

"A month ago people would still be shocked at that figure," said Donald Pols, of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, who calculated an annual $380 billion bill for climate change by 2030. "You have now proven that it's possible" to raise huge resources in the face of a crisis.

Pols said the economic restructuring called for under the bailout agreements opened opportunities for more investment in renewable energy and "green" businesses.

The money injected into the banking system was meant to be invested, he said. Governments have broken the taboo against intervention in the markets and should have a voice in directing those investments.

Kevin Conrad, the chief climate negotiator for Papua New Guinea and an influential voice at the climate talks, warned that "weak countries" would use the financial crisis to escape responsibilities.

"In life, we have to figure out how to do more than just one thing," he said in a telephone interview from New York.

He expected the financial discussions at the next round of talks in Poznan to be "an uphill battle. The financial crisis doesn't make it any easier, but there is a critical mass of countries still pushing for progress."

On Tuesday, the finance ministers of 30 countries met in the Polish capital of Warsaw for informal talks to prepare for the Poznan conference. The U.N. climate chief, Yvo de Boer, said the ministers concluded that "the current financial turmoil should not be an excuse to slow down action on climate change."

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