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World governments start talks on climate change agreement

Governments from nearly 200 countries will launch discussions Monday on forging a global warming agreement, a process that is expected to be fraught with disagreements over how much to reduce greenhouse gases and which nations should adhere to binding targets.

The weeklong, United Nations climate meeting in Bangkok comes on the heels of a historic agreement reached in December to draft a new accord on global warming by 2009.

Without a pact to rein in rising greenhouse gases in the next two decades, scientist say warming weather will lead to widespread drought, floods, higher sea levels and worsening storms that could put billions of people at risk.

"The challenge is to design a future agreement that will significantly step up action on adaptation, successfully halt the increase in global emissions within the next 10 to 15 years, dramatically cut back emissions by 2050, and do so in a way that is economically viable and politically equitable worldwide,'' said Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, which is hosting the meeting.

All governments, including the United States, agree emissions need to be reduced to avert an environmental catastrophe. But the major polluters remain far apart over how best to achieve these goals.

Adding to the complexity of negotiations will be disputes over how best to help poor countries adapt to environmental changes by speeding up the transfer of technology and financial assistance from rich nations.

The European Union has proposed that industrialized countries slash emissions by 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. The U.S., which is one of the world's top polluters, has repeatedly rejected mandatory national reduction targets of the kind agreed to under the Kyoto Protocol a decade ago.

Japan, which is struggling to meet its emissions-cut obligations under the Kyoto pact, is looking for less stringent conditions this time around. It has talked of using 2005 rather than 1990 as the baseline for reductions and is campaigning for industry-based emission caps.

Under its plan, global industries such as steel or cement would set international guidelines for greenhouse gas emissions.

Proponents, including the United States, say that would help set a level playing field for competitive industries.

Critics, however, worry sectoral caps could be used to favor industries in richer countries with access to more advanced technology, while those in less developed nations would suffer.

Another contentious issue will be which countries will be required to make cuts under the new pact and how best to determine the level of reductions.

While the EU says the West has to take the lead in reducing emissions, the United States argued it should not have to make cuts that would hurt the U.S. economy unless China and India agreed to the same.

"We're willing to take on international binding targets as long as other major economies -- both developed and developing -- do so,'' U.S. negotiator Harlan Watson told The Associated Press.

"The primary concern is the so-called leakage issue,'' Watson said. "If you take commitments and you have energy intensive industries, they might want to move to other countries which don't have commitments.''

China has argued that developed countries should be required to take the lead in reducing pollution because their unrestrained emissions over the past century contributed significantly to global warming.

De Boer has said that requiring China and other developing countries like India and Brazil to take on binding targets "is not realistic.''

"Developing countries see that as problematic,'' he said. "The problem of climate change as we see it today is a result of rich countries' emissions, not the result of poor countries' emissions. The historic responsibility of this problem lies with industrial nations.''

Alden Meyer, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said a compromise might be building on the agreement reached in Bali where developing countries for the first time agreed to take voluntary actions that were "measurable, reportable and verifiable.''

Meyer said the West could provide the technology that would allow poor nations to reduce their emissions in certain sectors like steel and cement.

"Now you have this new animal agreed to in Bali. That is a big deal,'' he said. "You're opening negotiating space for new tools and mechanisms that will help developing countries bend down their emission curves while achieving sustainable development strategies.''

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