A draft United Nations plan to save the world from catastrophic climate change has called on rich nations to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by up to 40 per cent by 2020.
The text of the UN accord circulated yesterday came after a week of intense negotiations in Bali where delegates from 190 countries are thrashing out a successor to the Kyoto treaty, parts of which expire in four years. The text is a preliminary version of the "road map" under which the international community would seek a new deal to combat climate change within two years.
With a week still to go before there is any agreement on the Bali accord, it was a highly unusual step by the UN to publish the draft. The text will be continuously updated until this Friday, when a final agreement must be reached.
The battle over the final wording started almost immediately, with the US last night insisting that it could not sign up to any deal that included hard numbers. The veteran US negotiator Harlan Watson said: "Starting out with pre-determined answers isn't what we want to do. Our principal difficulty with numbers is that they pre-judge the outcome." The inclusion of hard numbers has the strong backing of the UK, the EU, the majority of developing nations and the UN's top climate official.
Yvo de Boer, the head of the UN climate secretariat, said the figures would be a "critical issue" at the talks. He said it was an important signpost to demonstrate the urgency of the situation and encourage business to invest in the technology needed to switch to a low-carbon economy.
The US objections centre on a single paragraph that begins: "Responding to the unequivocal scientific evidence that preventing the worst impacts of climate change will require parties to the convention (industrialised countries) ... as a group to reduce emissions in a range of 25-40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020."
Since the arrival of a new government in Australia, the US has become the only developed nation not to ratify the Kyoto protocol in which developed countries undertook to reduce their emissions by 5 per cent below 1990 levels.
While it is widely agreed that Kyoto has had little impact on reducing the levels of heat-trapping gases pumped into the atmosphere, the framework that it set up to cap countries' emissions and encourage them to pollute less by creating a market where carbon credits could be traded, is still seen as the best vehicle for getting an international climate deal.
The draft text referred only to emissions cuts by rich nations, but developing countries such as China and India which were not part of Kyoto are under intense pressure to take actions to curb emissions.
With the Bali talks coming at the end of a year in which the final doubts surrounding the scientific debate were swept away by the publication of an exhaustive six-year study by the UN's intergovernmental panel on climate change, the White House no longer wishes to be seen as the sole block on any progress.
Mr Watson insisted that the US wanted to be constructive. "We do want a Bali road map for 2009."
The US delegation increasingly isolated since Japan and Australia have shifted from the sceptic bloc is being stalked by a "shadow delegation" from Washington led by the man George Bush defeated at the last elections, the Democrat Senator John Kerry.
Mr Kerry said the elections next year would see the US emerge as a leader on the climate issue. "I am convinced the politics of 2009 in the US are going to be just night-and-day different from where we have been before," he said.
The Bali road map
* the EU wants:
Hard numbers on emission cuts for developed countries. Scientists have said that cuts of up to 40 per cent are needed by 2020. The Europeans also want a reference to the need to keep a temperature rise to less than two degrees above pre-industrial levels.
* the US wants:
No hard numbers in the accord. Washington also rejects any binding commitment to maintain temperature rises to below the two-degree threshold. What the US would like is for developing nations, particularly its economic rivals India and China, to share the burden of cuts.