Copenhagen climate talks: noise in the halls
COPENHAGEN -- The first impression one gets at the Copenhagen Climate Conference is of a meeting with a stronger-than-usual tailwind behind it. Expectations were until recently quite low for the COP15 (the fifteenth annual "Conference of the Parties" to the UN climate change convention, as it's formally known). The meeting is intended to achieve a non-binding political agreement on a new climate treaty rather than a more ambitious legally binding treaty (that has been postponed until 2010).
But a series of announcements by China, India, Europe, and the United States on what they were willing to commit in terms of emission reductions and financial assistance has led many here to hope that the next 10 days could result in real movement. Besides, the pace of events within the negotiating halls over the first three days has been unusually eventful. These annual COPs are divided up into two parts. During the first 7-10 days negotiators try to whittle down the areas of disagreement to a limited set of issues for decision by the ministers, who typically arrive for the last three days of the second week. Sometimes the pace of negotiations can seem somnambulant; COP14, held last December in Poland, barely progressed the negotiations at all. But this year there have already been two incidents of drama. The first was the leaking of a text drafted by the Danish government, which is hosting the conference. The text was the outline of a proposed new "Copenhagen Agreement" that would envision global emissions peaking by 2020 and then declining to 50 percent of 1990 levels by 2050, although there the figures the text were left for ministers to specify. Developing nations like China and India were angered that the text seemed to propose (to their minds) unfair constraints on their rights to emit greenhouse gases into the future, in contradiction of the long-held principle that rich countries should take on most of the burden of emission reductions because they are most responsible for historical emissions. Moreover, developing countries had a procedural objection: the text proposed a completely new international treaty rather than--as developing countries insist--building on the existing Kyoto Protocol. Even still, the draft text is only one of many documents circulating, and the developing country outrage at its content is typical of the positioning for negotiating advantage that occurs at this stage in all COPs.
The second incident occurred today, after the tiny island nation of Tuvalu--supported by a long list of small island and poor African countries--laid out demands for a new, legally binding treaty with stronger commitments than the Kyoto Protocol. This was opposed by richer developing countries like China, India, Venezuela and others, which fear that tough targets could constrain their economic growth. Tuvalu called for the suspension of negotiations until if proposal for full-scale negotiations on a new treaty were not accepted. Conference president Connie Hedegaard had no choice but to agree, and the COP was suspended this afternoon while delegates agree on how to respond to Tuvalu's proposal. Both episodes are reiterations of the disagreement between rich and poor nations about who should bear the burden of emission reductions and who should pay for it. But today's suspension of the negotiations was striking because it is highly unusual to see to see a split in the G77 group of developing countries, which have usually managed to present a united front. The draft "Danish text" proposed that richer developing countries should be differentiated from the poorest and most vulnerable developing countries when determining future responsibilities.
So far, this has been anathema to developing countries. The tactics of the small island states and developing countries today could suggest that they intend to hold out for a new legally binding agreement, and not just a political agreement, next week. There is also a lot more noise and ruckus in the halls than normal. An estimated 35,000 people have registered as official negotiators or observers for this conference. The Bella Center--where they are already warning delegates that they will be turned away if numbers become too high--is full of brightly dressed volunteers and activists. Yesterday troops of antipoverty demonstrators marched through the halls chanting slogans calling for a more ambitious treaty than what is being considered. It's not clear how much of all this will be allowed next week, when the ministers and heads of government arrive, and there are rumors that observers' access to the negotiations may be restricted once President Obama arrives at the end of next week.
Obama was supposed to arrive today but unexpectedly changed his plans to participate on the final day of the negotiations instead. This is widely seen as a signal that the White House believes that a deal may be possible next week. But the reaction to the "Danish text" showed the uneasiness among environmental groups and developing countries about how the principles of the Kyoto Protocol will be carried over into the new treaty. Expect more rancorous debates on this issue.
Thomas Legge Program Officer, Climate & Energy Program
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