Features | Environment | East Asia

Where are the Sherpas Taking Us?

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.

For all the technology in this wired Scandinavian capital, the Copenhagen climate summit is staying true to centuries-old diplomatic traditions. One is the continued importance of bureaucrats, who are thrashing out the details of agreements that only their political masters can commit to.

Nicknamed ‘Sherpas’ (after the Himalayan guides) for their ability to find pathways to an agreement, there are concerns at the end of the first week of the conference that these bureaucrats are losing their way. Many now see the political leaders themselves as the best chance for rescuing negotiations over the coming week.

The major powers remain at odds over the vexed questions of finance for developing countries and emissions reduction targets. Both the European Union and China have criticized the US target announced by President Barack Obama as insufficient, while the United States has all but ruled out climate aid for China, effectively damning the Chinese requests by praising the vigour of its economy. China, for its part, has called on the United States to have the courage to face up to its ‘historical responsibilities’ for global warming.

The developed countries’ goal remains $10 billion of ‘fast track’ funds for developing countries. On Thursday, Chinese diplomat Su Wei said negotiators needed to ‘consolidate our consensus,’ but there were few signs of one emerging.

The suggestion of financier George Soros that $100 billion in International Monetary Fund Special Drawing Rights could be used for climate aid was quickly dismissed by the EU, with European Commission chief negotiator Artur Runge-Metzger saying: ‘We have to be very careful in the way we use the Special Drawing Rights,’ and stressing that they should be reserved only for ‘very specific situations.’ If there’s a silver bullet that will break this deadlock, IMF Special Drawing Rights are not it.

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And disagreement has not been confined to the big players. The rifts within the G77 and China bloc of developing nations have become impossible to conceal, despite the bombastic declarations of chief negotiator Lumumba Di-Aping. On Thursday, Chinese negotiator Su Wei was half an hour late to his own press conference because G77 consultations overran. They still, clearly, have an awful lot to discuss.

On Wednesday, the small island nation of Tuvalu proposed a new, legally binding protocol that would aim to stabilize global temperature rises at 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels–more ambitious than the 2 degrees target widely touted pre-Conference and in the leaked Danish text. The Tuvalu proposal would require stronger (though not binding) commitments from developing nations, a move that was supported by other small island states but opposed by the major emerging economies of China, India, Brazil and South Africa (the so-called BASIC countries), who are committed to retaining the Kyoto Protocol and the onus it puts on developed countries. Tuvalu asked for–and got–a suspension of convention talks, which remained suspended Thursday.

But despite the problems, hope remains that a substantive outcome is still possible. Indeed, for all the bluster, these are ultimately negotiations over money, and as Runge-Metzger said in commenting on the value of finance commitments from a United States in hock to China: ‘If the United States wants to borrow from the Chinese to give it back to them? Be my guest.’