By Nina Chestney
LONDON (Reuters) - Leadership changes this year among some of the world's heaviest polluting countries should not undermine progress towards setting up a new global legally binding climate deal by 2015, the United Nations' climate chief said on Wednesday.
This year could see a sweeping change in national political leaders in large greenhouse gas emitters, including the United States, Russia, China and Japan, in elections or polls.
A U.S. presidential election in November could result in the Republican party seizing control from Democrat and U.S. President Barack Obama, prompting speculation that progress made so far to include the world's second biggest polluter in a legally binding climate pact could be damaged.
Some Republicans have been openly outspoken about their opposition to climate change science and policies, and have stepped up efforts to scrap or water down national policies to protect the environment.
"It is up to the U.S. electorate to choose the kind of leadership it wants for the next term. It is not only the U.S., but many industrialized countries are having important leadership changes (this year)," Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, told Reuters in an interview.
"We will see new blood come on board, hopefully new visions, and a reinvigorated commitment to a topic which is not a partisan issue," she added.
Last December, nearly 200 countries agreed in Durban, South Africa, to forge a new deal by 2015 forcing all nations to limit greenhouse gas emissions, which would enter into force by 2020.
They also agreed to extend the current pact enforcing carbon cuts, the Kyoto Protocol, from 2013 for a five or eight year period to ensure there is no regulatory gap between treaties.
A day after the talks Canada withdrew from Kyoto, dealing the treaty a symbolic blow, but Figueres said that decision should not undermine global talks for a new deal this year.
"It's like all the race horses are behind the starting gates and one bolts out. The loss of that horse will only delay the country's own economic transformation and make it less competitive in the future," she said.
WORK TO DO
Critics said the Durban outcome was not strong enough to slow global warming as many key decisions were deferred and 2020 could be too late for greenhouse gas cuts to offset the worst impacts of climate change.
"Durban did not solve the climate change problem but no single conference will do that," Figueres said.
Nations have a lot of work to do this year as Kyoto will expire and its second phase is due to start on January 1, 2013.
"This year countries have given themselves the longest and most ambitious set of tasks. Some may call it an 'administrative' year but I call it doing the necessary foundation work to allow countries to enter constructive discussions for a new legal instrument," Figueres said.
This year, countries will have to determine whether the Protocol's second phase should last for five or eight years, start talks on a new legal deal, and translate their emissions cut pledges into real reductions.
"Since Kyoto's (second phase) starts on January 1, 2013, we have to define the length of that this year - obviously the sooner the better," Figueres said.
Countries also have to build infrastructure to help developing nations deal with climate change, including setting up a green fund to provide finance, among other things.
At some point, they also need to pin down the legal form of a new deal, whose language was left rather vague in Durban with three different options, but that should not be the focus of work this year.
"The legal nature of the agreement has to fit itself to the substance of the deal and this year the focus will be on the substance," the executive secretary said.
(Editing by Keiron Henderson)