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Cautious Optimism for Copenhagen Deal as Barcelona Climate Talks End

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The mood was markedly improved on the final day of the Barcelona climate talks, as delegates, observers and non-governmental organizations all brushed off the pessimism that dominated much of this week and announced that there is still hope for a global deal at the Copenhagen COP15 sumit.

News that the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee had advanced the Kerry-Boxer bill forward - coupled with revelations that some progress was made in Spain on several key issues during the closed-door meetings between nations - offered a ray of hope for a binding agreement to emerge in December.

Representatives from the United Nations, European Union, G-77, and even the laggard United States all confirmed that a fair, ambitious and legally binding global agreement is still absolutely possible to achieve next month.

However, all agreed that the United States must come to Copenhagen with specific answers about how it will join the global fight against climate change. The major obstacle remains America’s unwillingness to put specific numbers on the table on an emissions reduction target and a dollar figure for its contribution to global financing to help poor nations adapt to climate change impacts and build low-carbon economies.

U.N. climate chief Yvo de Boer confirmed Friday that he believes “the United States can commit” to a specific emissions reduction target in Copenhagen.

“There was a number in President Obama’s election pledge, there is a number in the legislation that passed through the House of Representatives, there is a number in the draft legislation that the U.S. Senate will be considering early next year,” de Boer said.

Even without a finalized bill from Congress, Obama could deliver “a number which would not be alien” to what the Senate and House have in mind, de Boer noted.  That would pave the way for all parties to put numbers on the table and potentially reach a global deal in Copenhagen.

However, Alf Wills, lead negotiator for South Africa and spokesman for the G-77 group of developing nations, warned Friday that major industrialized countries must not greenwash such a deal if negotiators fail to produce a strong, binding agreement based on the science.

“We look forward to Copenhagen with optimism, but we will not accept a weak, greenwash deal,” Wills said.

“Without sound and deep emissions reductions, it doesn’t matter how much money is made available. Our lives, our economies, our lands and forests will be devastated," said Sudanese negotiator Lumumba Stanislaus-Kaw Di-Aping, who heads the G-77 plus China group.

“It would be a failure unforgivable and unforgettable,” he said.

Speaking of failures, at the U.S. delegation press conference this afternoon, I asked U.S. deputy climate change envoy Jonathan Pershing what effect, if any, Senator James Inhofe (R-Denial) might have on the process in Copenhagen, and whether GOP intransigence is hurting Obama’s ability to come up with a firm number on U.S. emissions reductions.

Pershing responded that the U.S. delegation traveling to Denmark will include “a wide variety of members of Congress as well as their staff,” from both parties, as is the tradition in international negotiations.  

“They are engaged with us in discussions about what they think will be effective, but U.S. policymaking on the international arena and negotiations is in the purview of the executive branch, and will remain that way,” Pershing told me.

It is promising to hear Pershing confirm that the Obama administration isn’t going to let GOP shenanigans control the U.S. position on international climate policy. But there is no doubt in the minds of the delegates wrapping up the Barcelona talks today that the continued momentum of the Kerry-Boxer Senate bill over the coming weeks could mean the difference between failure and success in Copenhagen. 

While finding agreement between 192 countries is admittedly not an easy task, there is no more important issue for world leaders to address this century. Climate change does not recognize national borders, and will threaten the national security and economies of all nations if left unchecked.

President Obama and other world leaders must now use every remaining minute this month to work towards a successful outcome in Copenhagen. Adios, Barcelona, thanks for the hospitality.

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