Shifting Gears, Running Out of Road

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Shifting Gears, Running Out of Road

Stephen Midas reports from the Copenhagen Climate Conference where delegates around the world are working to thrash out an agreement aimed at tackling global warming.

After the procedural wrangling of week one, controversy over informal weekend consultations and a walkout by developing nations on Monday, ministers and some national leaders have arrived in Copenhagen with most of the hard work still to do.

According to representatives of the G77 bloc, the walkout of developing countries that included China and India was sparked by concerns that rich countries will abandon the Kyoto Protocol, which provides for the ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ of developed and developing countries. The walkout also was said to be in protest of the amount of climate aid thus far pledged for ‘fast-start’ funding for poorer countries, which, according to the G77, is insufficient. On behalf of the EU, Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas strongly rejected both the Kyoto accusation (‘We are the strongest supporters of Kyoto. We fought for Kyoto’) and the complaint over money (‘We are the only part of the world that has put on the table real money’).

Conference talks resumed late Monday after a delegation from China, India, Brazil and South Africa (the ‘BASIC’ countries) met with COP15 President Connie Hedegaard, who is said to be continuing informal consultations to reach agreement among ministers. The consultations have been criticized as undemocratic and lacking transparency by the G77, a line of attack also followed by the African bloc. But US envoy Todd Stern cautioned that ‘process can become your enemy,’ arguing transparency must be balanced by effectiveness. Given the difficulties that negotiators have had agreeing and refining a single text, a behind-the-scenes political deal may be the conference’s last, best hope for a substantial outcome.

The starting gun for the political negotiations was fired at the opening ceremony of the high-level segment, with responsible national ministers assembled. They were encouraged to be ambitious by the likes of Al Gore, Prince Charles and Pope Benedict, who sent a message of support.

Speaking after the opening ceremony, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon reaffirmed the goal of halting global warming at 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and criticized the negotiations for being too slow, calling on all nations to ‘do what they can do.’ He acknowledged, however, that it would be difficult for politicians to reach agreement in just a few days.

It is, according to Stern, a completely unprecedented situation. He recalled that in Kyoto, Vice President Gore came for a day but that there was no assemblage of world leaders, much less an expectation that they would conclude negotiations themselves. Stern’s hope that ‘nothing’s booted upstairs’ to the leaders because everything’s resolved by then appears a forlorn one. All the central issues remain unresolved.

Meanwhile, major players the United States, China and Europe remain as critical of each other’s positions as they were on day one. The format of the final agreement, if any, is still uncertain as a new text is revised overnight by the working groups. There was a glimmer of progress when Chinese Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei accepted that the neediest countries of Africa and the small island states could have ‘priority’ for climate finance.

During the troubled conference, business groups including the International Chamber of Commerce and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development have assembled in Copenhagen to ask for a clear international framework and a mechanism for pricing carbon. According to Robert Falkner of the London School of Economics, corporate awareness of climate risk is ‘more sophisticated today,’ encompassing not just regulatory risk but also threats to global supply chains and questions of insurance.

In Copenhagen, the voice from business leaders is more or less united. With time running out, the political leaders are anything but.