Copenhagen climate talks: the night before Xmas

After a dismal day at the Copenhagen climate talks on Wednesday, there was much more to be cheerful about on Thursday; for those hoping for a deal, at least. Tonight, though, while leaders gather in Copenhagen and dine with Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, a deal still hangs in the balance.

Friday is going to be a very interesting day.

Hopes that a deal was within reach rose on Thursday partly because the delegates had started talking again. As Yvo de Boer, the top UN climate official, put it, the “cable car” inching its way to the top of the mountain has started moving again. The intervention by Hillary Clinton, making explicit US support for the widely-touted idea that rich countries should be paying the poor $100bn per year by 2020, certanly helped. The timing of her offer, aimed for maximum impact as the talks reach their most intense pitch, was certainly a smart tactical move.

In a more technical area – the question of how much scrutiny of their emissions reduction measures developing countries will accept – there are also signs of progress. The US and China have both been talking about the need to be “transparent”; although they may still have rather different ideas about what the word means.

However, there is still one glaring omission from the emerging consensus: a set of commitments to emissions reductions – or emissions curbs, in developing countries – that would keep the expected rise in global temperatures to the 2°C target set by leadinng economies. And that, after all, was meant to be the point of the whole exercise, wasn’t it?

A leaked UN document conveniently rumbling around the conference centre on Thursday night suggests the commitments add up to an atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide of about 550 parts per million: well above the target of 450ppm generally seen by scientists as needed to give the world a 50/50 chance of staying within that 2°C limit. Indeed, the report suggests a 3°C increase or more is the likely consequence. At that level, the effects such as drought and flooding would probably become severe, particularly in poor and hot countries. The conclusion is nothing new: plenty of other studies have reached the same assessment of the implications of the emissions cuts now available.The gap between them and a credible path to 450ppm is not huge – perhaps 8 per cent of global emissions in 2020 – but it is real.

There is talk here of a possible commitment to “review and strengthen”: in other words, to accept the strongest deal that is available in Copenhagen, and review emissions targets, with a view to tightening them, by 2015. That would help the leaders escape here on Friday night while presenting the meeting as a success. Whether the world agrees, once people have had a chance to unpack what their leaders have given them, will be a different matter.

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