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Durban Climate Conference: Back-Room Negotiations Begin

ARTHUR MAX   12/ 5/11 12:33 PM ET   AP

DURBAN, South Africa — Back-room negotiations began in earnest Monday on a deal to rescue the only treaty governing greenhouse gas reductions and to launch talks on a broader agreement to include the world's largest polluters: China and other emerging economies, the United States and Europe.

Key players laid out their opening positions in public at U.N. climate talks in South Africa, and were beginning a round of private meetings to probe each other's meanings and intentions – which remained murky.

South African authorities said they were deporting three activists from the Greenpeace environmental group after they were arrested trying to drape a protest banner from the rooftop of a beachfront hotel. The activists from Germany, Denmark and Australia pleaded guilty to trespassing in a court hearing, the Home Affairs Department said.

As the 194-nation conference moved into its decisive week, negotiators were feeling the pressure of a looming deadline: the expiry in 12 months of commitments by industrial countries to reduce climate-changing carbon emissions.

The European Union is championing a deal to get all major countries to agree to binding pollution targets in the future as its condition for renewing its commitments under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. It wants an agreement now to begin negotiations on a new all-encompassing treaty that would conclude by 2015 and take effect five years later.

"We do not need more thinking, we need more action," said Connie Hedegaard, the European commissioner on climate action.

The linchpins of such a deal are China and the United States – and both set hard conditions.

During the first week of the conference, attention honed in on China, and whether it was signaling new flexibility or reframing known positions.

After a private meeting with the Chinese, the Europeans walked away disappointed, said an EU delegate.

Despite public declarations it would participate in a legally binding agreement in the future, China unequivocally told the EU it would not accept binding targets for itself, said the delegate, speaking on condition of anonymity because negotiations were still in an early phase.

Earlier, China's top climate negotiator Xie Zenhua, in his first meeting with reporters, said China wanted to ensure all previous commitments by the industrial countries were met before entering into the next phase.

If that happened, he said, China could discuss a post-2020 deal. "The framework, I think, should be a legally binding one, or some documents to that effect."

But Xie set several "preconditions," including an extension of the Kyoto commitments for industrial countries, honoring commitments on immediate and long-term financial aid to poor countries, and delivery on promises of new technologies to develop low-carbon economies.

U.S. envoy Todd Stern said the United States has no objection to a post-2020 treaty, as long as it treats everyone the same.

Countries must accept "obligations and commitments that have the same legal force," Stern said.

But he did not believe that China and others were prepared to unconditionally accept legal parity with everyone else.

Stern said any future agreement should revise the division of countries into two distinct groups, industrial and developing, as they were defined in the basic 1992 climate convention.

"It just doesn't make any sense. The world has changed dramatically since 1992," he said.

Canadian Environment Minister Peter Kent affirmed Ottawa will not sign on to another round of emissions reductions commitments under the Kyoto Protocol – regardless of any new stand by China.

Canada, Japan and Russia all announced last year their rejection of Kyoto's second commitment period, starting in 2013.

The signals from Beijing "could be an important development," and Canada is waiting to hear more details, Kent said. Nonetheless, "that would not change our position."

He made no announcement regarding earlier reports that Canada would formally withdraw from Kyoto by the end of the year.

If it did so, it would be the second signatory to renounce the accord. The first was the United States in 2001.

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Filed by James Gerken  |