Lost in the Process: Tales from Copenhagen as Climate Deadline Nears

12/17/2009 01:37 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011


By Tove Iren S. Gerhardsen -RUTV Europe Correspondent

COPENHAGEN - These days Copenhagen is, in Tom Waits' words: "cold as a well digger's ass." It is windy and snowing (!). But inside the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP15) venue, the atmosphere is getting increasingly hot - mostly due to frustration.

More than 45 000 people (three times the capacity of the venue) have been queuing in the cold this week - for hours - to get accredited for what has been described as the most important meeting since the Second World War. They want to get into the venue and have their voices heard. And this seems to be symbolic for the meeting: So many voices, so many concerns, so little time - and a few, big key players who actually run - or slow down - the show.

It is a classic game of many United Nations meetings: the poor and under-resourced versus the rich, large, well-prepared developed country delegations. And although the rhetoric is well-meaning on the surface, i.e. we are indeed in this climate issue together and should find a common solution, deep national (and short-sighted) interests are lurking below, and countries seem to get lost in process - rich or poor.

After a week of blame-game between developing and developed countries, especially China and the United States, more than 100 heads of state and governments will arrive for the last few days. "If we are going to make it - and we are! - well, then we must change gears," said the first Danish chair of the meeting, Connie Hedegaard, at the 15 December high-level opening ceremony. She called for compromise.

But compromise seems to be the hardest word - even when it comes to our common planet.

One day before the meeting will end, the meeting still does not have a draft text that the heads of state can negotiate on, and they are still discussing the "way forward." The Danish host has tried to present such a text, but developing countries protested strongly at what they regarded as a developed-country-driven process.

Regardless of differences, the meeting is running out of time. With only one day left until 18 December to safeguard a deal that is to control the climate changes of the future, both activists and officials are getting increasingly frustrated. At the same time, it seems like the chaos and deadlock has taken the last energy out of participants, and a feeling of apathy - instead of a give-everything-before-reaching-the-finishing-line atmosphere - is present at the meeting.

Rich versus Poor

The hopes for a deal seem especially high among developing countries. At the same time, they are also being blamed by developed countries for abstracting a deal by focusing too much on process.

It is obvious that climate change will - and does already - affect poor countries proportionally harder than the rich. Countries like Tuvalu have also repeatedly voiced their concern. These countries do not have time to wait for the Senate or analysis of how many jobs green technology will create: they are in a dire situation and this is about "to be or not to be" for their nations.

However, the Group of 77, which represents some 130 developing countries, is diverse and the interests of China are quite different than those of Pacific Island nations such as Vanatu and Kiribati and Palau.

A real concern for developed countries is that major developing countries, such as China, India and Brazil, will have to commit to specific CO2 reduction targets for a deal to make sense as they will represent the largest emissions in the future. So far they have agreed to energy-saving activities, rather than specific CO2 cuts. "[T]he United States is not going to do a deal without the major developing countries stepping up and taking real action," said Special Envoy for Climate Change for the US ,Todd Stern, at a 11 December press conference.

At the same time, COP15 seems to be about more than saving the Planet for many developing countries. They see this meeting as a welcome chance to change the world structure.

"Developing countries realise that this is the most important forum in many years. What seems to be an environmental discussion is more a political and economical negotiation" said one developing country official. "The outcome will be very important for the configuration of external relations in the coming years," he said.

The official said that the developed countries do not realise that the world has changed since the 1990s when other major agreements, such as free trade agreements, were made. "Now major developing countries ask for major weight into the negotiations," he said.

He also argued that while developing countries desperately need access to green technology such as solar panels and wind turbines as well as finance to set it up and run it, developed countries are more interested in maintaining its patents on the technology and get public funding to cover the royalties.

Then add to this the interests of the rich countries and the layers of interests may help explain why world leaders may not get their act together at this meeting either - some 18 years after the process started.

Two Tracks - and Lack of Trust

In short, two tracks are being discussed at the COP15 meeting: One process is discussing the UN Convention under the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-Term Cooperative Action under the Convention (LCA). A separate track is discussing possibly supplanting the Kyoto Protocol, which is a separate agreement under the Convention. It expires in 2012.

Under each of these tracks, government officials have meet in closed-door "informal" meetings to discuss specific issues that will be reflected in two main documents for the ministers. But these processes are stuck.

Earlier, the African countries staged a walk-out and threatened to boycott the rest of the meeting if the developed countries did not promise to continue with the Kyoto Protocol. Under it, most developed countries - except the US - have committed to specific CO2 reduction targets, and it is legally binding. They have also made specific commitments such as the promise to transfer green technology to poor countries.

After US President Barack Obama's announcement in Singapore earlier this year, it has been accepted that an agreement in Copenhagen will only be political, and not legally binding, at least not yet. Therefore developing countries do not want to give up the Kyoto Protocol. However, at the moment any deal seems to be difficult, and the discussion of it being political or judicial seem irrelevant.

Developed countries, however, would like to merge the two tracks and create a new, global climate agreement in Copenhagen that would replace Kyoto, with commitments for developing countries as well. Even as late as 17 December, two days from the deadline, this issue of process was still stopping real negotiations in the plenary sessions. And this particular disagreement has symbolised the general lack of trusts between the two blocks.

So, countries cannot even agree on what kind of agreement should be reached. How, then, can they possibly agree on the content, i.e. how much each country should reduce CO2 emissions by, and by when?

Climate Sceptic

To some of the countries, a deal may not be that important after all as they are sceptic to the real severity of the climate changes, without openly confessing it. Or so it may seem at the meeting.

But in the middle of the chaos and seemingly one-opinioned gathering, one confessed climate sceptic is also around. Bjørn Lomborg, author of the book, "The Sceptical Environmentalist," agrees that "global warming is real" but disagrees that the UN process, which he says has gone on - and failed - for 18 years now, is the way forward.

"I am not a global warming science sceptic, I am a global warming policy sceptic," he says.

He argues that developing countries clearly have more important issues to worry about, such as basic health care and food, than climate change that will take place 100 years from now. He says, however, that developing countries see a lot of potential financing in the climate negotiations, but the best way forward would be to invest in research and development of new technology.

He said we would be lying to ourselves if we believed we could tackle poverty, for example, through the climate negotiations. For example, would it be only those who got struck by malaria caused by climate change who would be helped? Global warming is expected to increase the at-risk malaria population by about 3%, but we could much more effectively address malaria through direct policies and new combination therapies than through carbon cuts, he says. He warns against everybody going down the same road.

Still Hope

However, Lomborg represents a definite minority here at COP15. It may not be the end of the world if a climate deal is not struck in Copenhagen, but it would be an excellent opportunity missed. Judging from all the interest in the meeting, the negotiators owe it to the world to do their best.

Maybe the arrival of the heads of state such as Prsident Obama, the Chinese President Hu Jintau and UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown will help whip up a miracle during the last hours of the high-level meeting. There is still a hope and slight chance of success. But the clock is ticking.

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