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Economy Offers Excuse to Avoid Climate Fight

Alister Doyle

Members of staff prepare the stage prior to the UN climate change conference in Poznan November 29, 2008. Some 9,000 people confirmed their participation in the 14th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 4th meeting of Parties to the Kyoto Protocol. The conference will be held in Poznan from December 1 to 12. REUTERS/Pawel Kopczynski (POLAND)

OSLO-The economic downturn will test the world's resolve to keep fighting global warming at an international conference in Poland next week, but Barack Obama's election should temper the gloom.

The Dec. 1 to 12 meeting of 8,000 delegates from more than 180 nations in Poznan, Poland, will review the progress of a plan for a sweeping new United Nations climate treaty by the end of 2009.

So far, many countries have promised to fight global warming despite fears of deep recession, but few have come up with deep cuts in emissions that UN experts say are needed to avoid the worst of heat waves, droughts and rising seas.

"I'd expect the economic crisis to have an effect" on resolve, said Yvo de Boer, head of the UN Climate Change Secretariat, discussing the outlook for Poznan. "Lower oil prices will mean less of an incentive to invest in renewables.

"The minute the financial crisis struck, industries said `this makes it difficult to take on expensive targets,'" he said.

Among cancelled investments, FPL Group, the largest U.S. wind power operator, has slashed planned 2009 spending by 25 per cent to $5.3 billion (U.S.). Shares in China's Suntech Power Holdings, the world's largest solar module maker, fell to an all-time low last week, down more than 90 per cent.

For many nations, Obama's election is reason for optimism - many U.S. allies accuse President George W. Bush of doing too little to diversify away from fossil fuels. China and the United States are the top greenhouse gas emitters.

Obama has promised to "engage vigorously" in climate-change talks once he is U.S. president and plans a costly stimulus package to revive the economy, including green jobs.

"There are positive influences," said Rajendra Pachauri, head of the UN climate panel. "Obama has got elected and he has said that the current economic crisis is not going to impair his resolve to tackle the problem of climate change."

Obama has promised to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions back to 1990 levels by 2020 and to 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050.

Pachauri said Obama might be able to come up with even more. The UN panel says by 2020 rich nations need to be at levels 25 to 40 per cent below 1990 levels to keep temperatures below what some countries see as a "dangerous" 2 degree Celsius rise.

"Maybe this is just the beginning of what we expect from him," Pachauri said. His panel said it would cost less than 0.12 per cent of global gross domestic product every year until 2030 to avert the worst of climate change.

The economic downturn means countries "are going to have all kinds of excuses to avoid making progress. So (Poznan) will be a test," said Angela Anderson, director of the Pew Environment Group's global warming campaign.

The Poznan talks will mainly review progress and discuss current ideas like new clean technology for developing nations such as China and India, ways to reward tropical nations for slowing deforestation and how to help poor countries adapt to climate change.

The European Union may be distracted by a Dec. 11-12 EU summit in Brussels at which leaders will try to agree on a plan to cut emissions 20 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020. Italy and Poland are among those worried about costs.

"The days are gone when the EU can hide behind the United States and still look good," concluded Jennifer Morgan, of the E3G environmental think-tank.

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