COPENHAGEN — The optimism and downright perkiness that colored the opening day of the Copenhagen climate talks have been hit head on with the reality of the situation: International negotiators need to get as close as possible to an acceptable agreement by the end of next week as the entire world watches, despite the fact that fundamental, divisive and potentially insurmountable issues loom large. For me, the jovial free concert that the Danish band Nephew blasted to a cheering, fist-pumping crowd in the city center on Monday night marked the end of the initial euphoria stage.
Now we’ve moved solidly into crunch mode — as the United Nations climate chief Yvo de Boer stressed in a press conference on Tuesday morning, “It’s time to put words into actions,” and, “It’s time for the working group to do what its name suggests: work.” Connie Hedegaard, Minister for the UN Climate Conference (and my new personal hero) has taken a similarly no nonsense approach, reminding negotiators in the opening ceremony on Monday that the preparations for the COP15 event “have been unparalleled” and that their families are expecting them to be less busy next year. “Let’s get it done,” Hedegaard insisted.
It’s clear, however, that making everyone happy — or even remotely satisfied — is far easier said than done. The reality is that the climate negotiations will need to bridge a series of very wide divides — the same ones that color the world: rich vs. poor, and developed vs. developing nations. The nations most vulnerable to climate change, including many in Africa, are making no bones about their dissatisfaction with the current emissions targets put forth by all of the developed countries, including the U.S. and the countries in the EU. As the sign of one group of Danish protesters put it, developing countries are saying: “Rich countries pay your climate debt.” In other words, the booming economies of the developed world have been generating the bulk of the carbon emissions, so now they have to act.
Nothing spells out this gaping divide like the report from the UK’s Guardian on Tuesday. The Guardian proclaimed that the Copenhagen talks were in “disarray” this morning after a Danish version of a draft agreement, which moved power away from developing nations toward rich nations, and relegated the U.N. to the “sidelines,” was leaked to the newspaper. I have yet to see or hear “disarray” occurring at the summit, and have even read some reports questioning the Guardian’s reporting, saying the Guardian’s “leaked” document was really an older version of a draft that will look very different in its final form.
However, the Guardian report had enough weight for de Boer to comment in on the subject:
“This was an informal paper ahead of the conference given to a number of people for the purposes of consultations. The only formal texts in the UN process are the ones tabled by the Chairs of this Copenhagen conference at the behest of the Parties.”
Regardless of whether the draft is new or older, it represents the fundamental fears of the developing world — that the rich countries will refuse to put forward aggressive enough emissions, and many of the most vulnerable nations will start to face the real affects of global warming, like extreme weather, loss of water resources, and rising sea levels. Representatives of regions like Micronesia and the Maldives have been testifying over the past two days that climate is already an issue of survival for their populations.
But while developed nations seem to agree that $10 billion per year is a reasonable sum to help vulnerable nations mitigate and adapt to climate change, developed nations don’t agree with many other fundamental sticking points. Many developed countries, and namely the U.S., want to move away from the structure of the Kyoto Protocol towards a new agreement, and want existing channels (like the World Bank) to manage the needed finances. Developing nations want to stick to the structure of the protocol and want a new independent body managing those funds.
At the end of the day the U.S. and China could put forth more aggressive emissions targets (surprising even the skeptics), but the Copenhagen negotiations will still be about political maneuvering between countries with vastly different resources, GDPs, ideologies and histories. And as we know from watching the stranglehold within Congress on particularly divisive issues, politics moves only so quickly. As Bill McKibben put it an article this week: “Politics as usual could mean the end of civilization” in Copenhagen. Time is running out to find a consensus — scientists say that emissions have to peak by 2015 and then drop dramatically. That leaves little more than five years to find some sort of bridge for this divide.
Update: There was a protest outside of the plenary on Wednesday after a delegate of Tuvalu islands (a developing nation that is already being effected by climate change) was reportedly blocked from speaking (I wasn’t there, so will followup if I know more details). Expect more of these protests highlighting this divide.