In a preview of their separate climate talks next week, U.S. and U.N. officials downplayed the broad gap between how they would cut carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases. All sides say their focus is on what will succeed the Kyoto Protocol, negotiated a decade ago and due to expire in 2012.
"Is this competing? And the answer is absolutely not," said Harlan Watson, the chief U.S. climate negotiator.
On Monday, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon plans a meeting in New York to build momentum for a larger U.N. conference in December in Indonesia where negotiators will try to create a post-Kyoto accord. Three days after Ban's meeting, President Bush has called for a two-day climate gathering in Washington with major industrial nations, the United Nations and a few developing countries, including China and India.
"Tackling global climate change requires all major economies - developed and developing - to work together. And it requires each to make a contribution consistent with its national circumstances," Dan Price, a deputy national security adviser to Bush, told reporters. "Not every country can afford to invest large sums to develop or acquire technologies. But every country can eliminate tariffs and other barriers to trade in clean energy goods and services."
But where the U.N. seeks agreement by 2009 or 2010 for another round of mandatory emissions cuts, the Bush administration wants a strictly voluntary agreement among nations by the end of 2008, in the waning days of Bush's presidency - and only hopes to take incremental steps without establishing firm goals or the requirements to meet them.
"We're not going to solve all these issues, obviously. What we want to do is to set up processes, we want to set up work teams," Watson said.
In an interview, Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said it remained to be seen whether the United States takes the U.N. climate talks seriously.
"Clearly the United States is taking the issue a lot more seriously than it did before," said Ilves, who plans to deliver the European Union's official position Monday at the United Nations. "It has clearly come to the conclusion that despite the unfortunate flap of Kyoto, we need to work together to do something."
The Kyoto Protocol mandates emissions cuts through 2012 to a collective 5 percent below 1990 levels only from the industrialized nations that ratified it, but has produced mixed results at best. President Bush rejected it as too costly for the U.S. economy, and unfair because it excluded China, India and other developing economies.
Bush now wants to let countries each set "national midterm goals" for 2020 and 2030, with no binding commitments internationally, according to Watson's PowerPoint presentation at the Brookings Institution forum.
"One size won't fit all: national/regional strategies are most realistic," the document says. "Each would establish its own targets, goals and programs that are legally binding domestically."
But the danger U.N. officials warn against - besides actual climate warming - is a gap in the emerging multibillion-dollar trade in carbon "credits" that has grown from the Kyoto treaty. For nations that signed on and businesses within them, any reductions that go further than needed can be sold to others who might need them.
Earlier this year, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an authoritative group of world climate scientists, forecast that all regions of the world will change from climate warming and a third of the Earth's species would vanish if global temperatures continue to rise and reach 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above the average temperature in the 1980s-90s.
"Decisive action in the next decade can still avoid some of the most catastrophic scenarios the IPCC has forecast," said Yvo de Boer, the U.N.'s top climate official.
"A strong climate change framework needs to be in place by 2009 or 2010 in order to insure that there is no gap between the end of the Kyoto Protocol's first commitment period and the entry into force of a new regime. And that is important for a number of reasons, including to give confidence to the carbon markets that policies will continue to move forward," he said. "That is the agenda which we cannot achieve without the help and consensus of the United States and other countries from around the world."