Leaders plan a 'two-step' environment deal

President Barack Obama joined other leaders of the Asia-Pacific nations yesterday in accepting that a long-planned summit in Copenhagen next month on climate change will be unable to forge a new global treaty on cutting greenhouse emissions and will have to put off reaching a final deal until next year or even later.

Meeting for their regional Apec summit in Copenhagen, the leaders accepted the delay after being briefed at a hastily-arranged breakfast by Lars Løkke Rasmussen, the Danish Prime Minister, who will chair the Copenhagen talks that begin on 7 December. He made it plain that insufficient progress had been made on this point between the main players to make a final pact possible next month.

He said that the 191 nations expected to attend Copenhagen should settle instead for a binding political accord reiterating their commitment to a comprehensive deal that will succeed the existing Kyoto Protocol on emissions. The haggling on the very difficult specifics, including emission reduction goals and finance transfers to poorer countries to help them reach targets, would be finished later.

The unexpected intervention will anger environmental groups as well as some developing countries that are anxious for a replacement for Kyoto as quickly as possible. If the timetable is allowed to slip now, what will stop it sliding again, maybe even beyond next year, they will demand to know.

However, it reflects the reality that nations remain far apart in several key areas and the chances of a pact being finalised next month had already become very slim. Among the unknowns is how the two biggest emitters of CO2 plan to meet new reduction goals – the United States and China.

Mr Obama and China's leader President Hu Jintao put climate change at the heart of bilateral talks in Beijing today. The US President began his first visit to China in Shanghai yesterday.

"There was an assessment by the leaders that it was unrealistic to expect a full, internationally legally binding agreement to be negotiated between now and when Copenhagen starts in 22 days," the US climate change negotiator, Michael Froman, travelling with Mr Obama, said before leaving Singapore.

The Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, agreed, noting that Copenhagen will remain key for maintaining political momentum. "Leaders ... were clear in their view that the current officials-led process is running into all sorts of difficulties, and therefore it is time for leaders, politically, to step in," he said.

Outlining what he said was his two-step plan, Mr Rasmussen said that "the Copenhagen Agreement should finally mandate continued legal negotiations and set a deadline for their conclusion". The environment ministers of about 40 countries are due to arrive for pre-summit talks in Copenhagen today. It remains to be seen whether all of them are ready to accept postponing a final pact.

Greenpeace expressed their disappointment with the new schedule. "I doubt the majority of countries will buy this 'face-saving' plan," a spokeswoman, Kaisa Kosonen, warned.