Leaders called to special climate talks

Unprecedented number of summits as world struggles to hammer out agreement before vital meeting in December

World leaders are to meet for an unprecedented second summit on climate change this year to try to get agreement on a tough new treaty by December, and may even get together for a third time before the end of the year.

The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, is to call the world's heads of government to New York in September to "galvanise political will" about what he describes as "the defining issue of our time". And there are plans for another G20 summit to discuss the issue in the autumn.

These will follow a meeting of 17 key world leaders convened at the initiative of President Barack Obama immediately after the annual G8 summit in July. Observers cannot remember any similar progression of top-level meetings to address any issue over such a short period of time.

The moves come as pressure mounts on the leaders to reach agreement at December's vital negotiations in Copenhagen, billed as the world's last chance to get to grips with global warming before it escalates out of control.

On Friday a think tank headed by the former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan reported that climate change was already killing 300,000 people and affecting 300 million. The day before, 20 Nobel Prize winners, meeting in London, warned that it posed as great a threat as nuclear war. And in Copenhagen on Tuesday 500 business chief executives called for "an ambitious and effective treaty" to "help establish a firm foundation for a sustainable economic future".

The summits are part of an extraordinarily intense series of meetings over the next six months that will take negotiators from Bonn to Bangkok and from Barcelona to the Ilulissat in Greenland. The first three are formal discussions on a UN treaty for the Copenhagen talks, while key ministers from 30 countries will go to the small Greenland town next to the Arctic's fastest melting glacier at the end of next month to try to hammer out a "political declaration" to accompany it.

The next round of negotiations opens in Bonn tomorrow, but no one is expecting a breakthrough. Talks in the former West German capital in April made little progress beyond agreeing to draw up negotiating texts.

These will be on the table for the first time tomorrow, but they mainly serve to highlight divisions between countries and show how far there is to go in six short months to meet December's deadline.

One of the main stumbling blocks is how much rich countries will undertake to cut their emissions of greenhouse gases in the short to medium term. There is general agreement that they should be reduced by a drastic 80 per cent on 1990 levels by 2050, the minimum that scientists say will be needed to avoid dangerous climate change. But setting more immediate targets is proving much harder.

Ten days ago, China flung down the gauntlet by calling on rich countries to cut emissions by 40 per cent by 2020. The only advanced economy to come near that is the European Union, which has promised unilaterally to reduce them by 20 per cent by then, rising to 30 per cent if other countries follow suit. But at present there is little sign of other industrialised nations taking up the challenge; despite the new priority President Obama is giving to climate change, his plans would amount to a cut of only a few per cent from 1990 levels.

In return, developing countries, including China and India, would agree to slow the growth of their emissions through "measurable, verifiable and reportable" measures. But India has just signalled that it will not open such plans to global scrutiny unless rich countries deliver on a promise to provide funds to help it tackle and adapt to climate change.

That is the second sticking point. Developing countries want to get at least $200bn a year, which works out at about 0.5 per cent of rich nations' economic output and is about the same size as current development aid. It is a relatively small sum, especially in the context of the amounts spent in recent months on bailing out the banks, but developed country government are baulking at it. Last week Australia described the demands as "unimaginable".

In the end, senior negotiators say, success or failure will depend not so much on the climate talks themselves, but on whether the world adopts a Green New Deal as the best way to revive the world's economy.