Copenhagen: the story so far

It is a beautiful day in Copenhagen – the skies are clear and blue, and the sun is shining, and the streets are full of protestors. The delegates of more than 190 countries attending the United Nations climate summit will see neither the sky nor the activists. In their air-conditioned conference centre, they are scurrying around shepherding newly arrived ministers into meeting after meeting, and frantically consulting one another on the status of the negotiations.

The first week of the summit is over. Saturday and Sunday are both normal working days for the conference, as countries seek to bridge their differences in the final days. Next week, ministers negotiate in earnest and on Thursday the leaders arrive, hoping to sign a deal.

Has the past week brought a deal closer? The signs have been mixed.

The summit kicked off with optimistic speeches by the key countries and the United Nations. Connie Hedegaard, the Danish environment minister and host, urged countries to “get it done”. Countries set out the commitments they were willing to make.

In another part of Copenhagen, the climate change sceptics held their own conference claiming that the scientific consensus on global warming was non-existent.

Then some of the NGOs at the conference got in on the act. They took a draft text for an agreement, written by Denmark, that had been shown round developed and developing countries, and journalists, for more than a week. Until then, developing countries had grumbled slightly about a few provisions. But when certain NGOs persuaded them that this could be a cause celebre, some of the more media hungry countries leapt at the chance.

(They also manufactured some claims about the draft that weren’t true, such as that it said by 2050 developing country emissions could reach 1.44 tonnes per person and in developed countries this figure would be 2.67 tonnes per person. None of this was actually in the text. It was made up, which didn’t stop some people reporting it.)

The lead representative of the G77, Lumumba Di-Aping of Sudan, led with gusto. He called the West climate colonialists. Later in the week he stepped up his rhetoric, saying developed countries were “sending Africa into a furnace” and asking whether they remembered sending 6m Jews to a furnace. No holds barred for Mr Lumumba, a member of the Sudanese government who lives mainly in New York.

This ballyhoo distracted from the real business of the talks. And the talks, midweek, were not going well.

Some developing countries – led by the small island states – started saying that setting a target of 2 degrees was not enough. (Two is the magic number at these talks – most countries have settled on trying to prevent global warming of more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, as scientists posit this as the limit of safety beyond which the effects of warming become catastrophic and irreversible.)

They have a point – their islands could well be swamped by rising sea levels if temperatures rose by 2 deg. So they want to  set a target of 1.5 degrees.

However this goal would be much harder to reach – most countries think impossible. And at this late stage of the talks, trying to talk about 1.5 degree would mean going back to the beginning and starting the grim process all over again.

But that is a very harsh thing to say to people whose homelands may be drowned. Todd Stern, US special envoy for climate change, tried to find a reasonable and pragmatic compromise – he said countries should see a Copenhagen declaration with 2 degrees as a target as “a start” that could be improved upon later.

There were also many arguments about money. Mr Stern told China not to expect any from the US. China’s vice foreign minister He Yafei told the conference that when he read this in the Financial Times, which he was in the habit of reading every day, he was “deeply shocked”.

Developing countries want $10bn a year in “fast-start” funding for the next three years to help them cut emissions and adapt to the effects of climate change.

Developed countries have yet to pledge this much. Mr Stern recalibrated this request by saying that what was needed was “up to” $10bn.

But Europe at the end of the week came up with €2.4bn  a year for the next three years for developing countries – something of a triumph, given that just days before there were only offers on the table from the UK and Sweden and some of Europe’s biggest economies were saying they could not contribute, owing to the recession.

It was greeted with derision by the NGO community, who pointed out that some of the amount would come from existing aid budgets.

And on Friday delegates received copies of the official draft negotiating texts for the conference. (There have to be two as there are two negotiating strands – one for countries that have ratified the Kyoto protocol, which is everyone except the US, and a separate one for everyone including the US.)

The draft text is short on many of the key details – emissions targets,  financing, whether developing countries will  have to make legally binding commitments to curb their emissions, as the rich countries want them to – but at least it is a start.

The question of two texts is interesting – there may, in the end, have to be two agreements, one a continuation of the Kyoto protocol and the other a new agreement that the US could sign. (There were calls by developing countries, led by Mr Lumumba, for the US to ratify the Kyoto protocol, which is just never going to happen,  and shows the poor level of debate at some of this conference.)

In between, during the week, there were rows over forestry, as a draft text on an agreement to preserve forests was found weak by many.

In sum, the talks have reached the midway point with some key progress. There is an official text, and some developed countries have made pledges on financing to the poor world. But developing countries want more financing and deeper emissions cuts from the developed world, and rich countries want the commitments that developing countries have made to be made legally binding, rather than optional.

There is still all to play for in the coming week.

Related links:

FT Energy Source – Copenhagen coverage
FT.com In Depth: Copenhagen

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