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Climate Change

Obama's climate accord fails the test

Watered-down agreement follows day of bitter wrangling in Copenhagen

World leaders late last night agreed a hugely watered-down version of a new global pact on climate change, after an astonishing day of deadlock, disagreement, misunderstandings, walkouts and insults at the UN climate conference in Copenhagen.

The agreement, patched together after massive and rancorous divisions between the rich nations and the developing countries, especially America and China, was described as a "meaningful and unprecedented breakthrough" by the US President Barack Obama. However, a senior American official openly admitted it was not enough to combat the threat of a warming planet, saying merely: "It is a first step."

Known as the Copenhagen Accord, the new agreement falls massively short of the ambitions many people had centred on the two-week meeting in the Danish capital, in the hope of a major new effort to combat the global warming threat. Although in principle it commits – for the first time – all the countries of the world, including the developing countries, to cut their emissions of the greenhouse gases which are causing climate change, the accord is not legally binding, merely a political statement.

They key timetable for turning it into a legal instrument by this time next year, which is what the world desperately needs so that cuts in CO2 emissions really are carried out, was dropped from the text during the immensely difficult and seemingly-intractable talks which lasted all day and late into the evening. In effect, that makes it toothless. Mr Obama himself admitted that a binding deal would be "hard to achieve".

And although, again for the first time, the new accord set a target for the whole world to try to keep the expected rise in temperatures to below the danger threshold of C above the pre-industrial level, last night's final text dropped all reference to the individual targets for emission cuts which countries will have to take on, both in the medium and in the long-term. It is possible these may be inserted early next year – but without being legally binding, they are merely generalised aspirations.

Although at least there was a deal of sorts, which may be built on later, it was a sorry end to a day which saw seemingly insuperable divisions between rich nations and the developing countries over how the biggest problem facing the world should be tackled, even though nearly 120 of their heads of state and government were in Copenhagen to deal with it directly.

The day's most remarkable feature was a direct and unprecedented personal clash between the US President, Barack Obama, and the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, in which Mr Wen took deep offence at Mr Obama's insistence – in public – that the Chinese should allow their promised cuts in greenhouse gases to be internationally verified. When the President, in an unyielding speech, said that without international verification "any agreement would be empty words on a page", that was too much for Mr Wen. He left the conference in Copenhagen's Bella Centre, returned to his hotel in the city, and responded with a direct snub of his own – he sent low-level delegates to take his place in the talks.

A high-level source told The Independent that the US President was amazed when he found who he was negotiating with, and clearly regarded Mr Wen's absence as a major diplomatic insult. He snapped: "It would be nice to negotiate with somebody who can make political decisions" although last night urgent diplomatic efforts were underway to try to bring the two leaders face to face for a second round of talks, to patch up the disagreement.

Even until late there was stubborn disagreement over two issues – what long-term emissions cuts of greenhouse gases the world should aim at, to keep future warming below the C danger threshold, and the America-Chinese "transparency" problem – how promised emissions cuts by individual countries could be internationally monitored and verified. In both cases, it was the Chinese, now the world's biggest CO2 emitters with the world's fastest growing economy, who held out – against fixed targets, and international verification. In the end, the ambition of the deal had to be sacrificed to get it signed.

It was thought that the presence together in the same room of the world's most powerful politicians, from Mr Obama down, would prove the means of unlocking the stalemate which has dogged the two-week conference, itself the culmination of a two-year negotiating process aimed at building a new and comprehensive climate treaty. But instead, the differing attitudes and distrust which have plagued the conference remained entrenched, and were even more visible when the leaders met in Copenhagen's Bella Centre – most notably in the direct clash between the world's two biggest greenhouse gas emitters America and China.

Yet it got worse. The long-awaited meeting, on which so much hope has been placed for so long around the world – the Danes, from their Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussne down, have been referring to Copenhagen as "Hopenhagen" – threatened to descend into farce when Venezuela's firebrand Marxist President, Hugo Chavez, fired off a string of insults at Mr Obama from the podium, saying he had been awarded "the Nobel Prize for war" and referring to his "Yankee Empire".

Subsequently Mr Chavez said he was leaving the meeting, along with his fellow Marxist Evo Morales, the President of Bolivia, and leaving the talks to junior negotiators.

It was a tragic sight for all those trying to head off the immense catastrophe-in-waiting which global warming represents, especially for the poorest in the world who will be hit hardest by rising temperatures – such as many of Mr Chavez's own people, and millions of others in South America, Africa and Asia.