Grist's coverage of Copenhagen climate talks

Copenhagen, Denmark, outside the Bella Center (What, you think I would be inside?)

Up until the wee hours of this morning, the consensus view was that this meeting was about to fall apart completely. Some of the most trusted environmental journalists I know, who have the most astute anti-“sky is falling” meters in the business were saying it, so everyone was saying it.

The evidence? Several examples since Wednesday that the major parties were definitively saying no to any compromise position and that the “Danish text” — the proposal by Danish Prime Minister Lars Rasmussen proposing that Copenhagen focus on the first step of a two step process — had been once and for all dropped after being teased out and shouted down over the past ten days.

I didn’t bite on the former worry, and I think I might collect on it. The main focus of the panic was that Todd Stern, US State Department Special Envoy for Climate Change, and Jonathan Pershing, his number two, were shooting down compromises with the Chinese and the G77 on the foundations of any post-2012 agreement left and right.

Sign Up for More News from GristOne of the more troublesome examples to me involved the head of a small NGO in DC who has made a reputation as being the smartest and savviest guy on the block on moving these deliberations forward (no, not the head of any major environmental organization). After working through the night to reconcile the Chinese reinterpretation of MRV (the language of the Bali Action Plan that stipulates that reductions from developing countries need to be “measurable, reportable, and verifiable”) with substitute language that they wanted, he took it to one of the top negotiators and was reportedly flatted told no. NGOs in developing countries who had worked with members of the US team prior to their elevation into the Obama administration couldn’t believe these were the same people.

But where some saw obstinacies I saw tactics and strategy. Stern and company may well have been doing what any negotiator would do in advance of his boss’ arrival (in this case both Secretary Clinton and President Obama): push everything to the floor so that, upon arrival, his chiefs could make a big splash by saying yes to lots of things. Don’t blame the US though for such politics. The Chinese have been doing it all week as well.

Take for example the sudden disappearance of Rasmussen’s compromise interim treaty. This is the proposal that was absolutely necessary to get Obama to come to this meeting in the first place and perhaps, more importantly, to get him to come to this meeting at the right time.

Rasmussen’s proposal to keep this meeting on getting a short, sharp compromise document had been floated for some months now as the formal UNFCCC negotiations ground to a stunning halt in monthly meetings in Bonn, Bankok and Barcelona. Seeing no chance that there would be a break through either on expanding the Kyoto Protocol (KP) beyond 2012 as unsatisfactory for the US and other developed countries, or on creating a new treaty out of the parallel track, the Ad-hoc Working Group on Long Term Cooperative Action (LCA), as unsatisfactory for the G-77, Rasmussen proposed setting those differences aside and moving forward. He presented this proposal to Obama and other leaders at the Asia Pacific Conference for Economic Cooperation last November in Singapore in a dramatic last minute breakfast meeting arranged by the leaders of Australia and Mexico. When Obama went from there to the Beijing summit with President Hu immediately after, he publicly embraced this proposal, through his special deputy for international economic affairs Michael Froman, and publicly stated that he was prepared to accept this idea and make whatever came from this agreement “immediately implementable.” President Hu, standing by, saw the whole thing and was there from the beginning of the spark of this idea to turn Copenhagen into the beginning of a process which would get a fully final and ratifiable treaty out of the next UN climate summit in Mexico City in 2010.

So when Chinese negotiators, and G-77 lead negotiator Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping, began shouting down this idea early last week as an unanticipated surprise, it was sheer theatrics. They had known about this text for well over a month and had even seen it weeks before as reported in The Washington Post. I wasn’t surprised in the least, especially given the participation of Lumumba in this staged protest as he’s done everything possible to halt progress on the LCA track since assuming the chair of the G-77 last August. These protests over the Danish text continued into this week when Rasmussen assumed the role of President of the meeting in advance of the arriving global leaders with an entire morning wasted on Wednesday with speeches from the floor from the Chinese and Indians that this text (actually there were several versions of it) had been “parachuted” into the meeting.

Even those who agree with me that this claim was false have argued that the problem with this text is that it was undemocraticly produced by a small cabal of countries. In fact, producing such a compromise text is the perogative of the UNFCC host country at any of these meetings and it isn’t the fist time it was done in the history of this process to break through negotiating deadlocks and get to yes.

Now, I think part of the Chinese objections to the Danish compromise was Kabuki theatre, but part was the lingering insistence that many developing countries will do anything possible to make sure that the KP goes forward after 2012, with its foundational mandate that developing countries will not sign on to mandatory emission reductions ever. This explains the objection to replacing the KP with the LCA and the rhetoric of the US wanting to “kill off” the KP. But I also think it explains the objection to the Danish compromise. There is a reading of the various versions of it that have been floated over the last couple weeks that, though a temporary document designed to be replaced, it presumes that its successor treaty will link the KP and some other treaty. The idea is that we’ll move forward with both the KP and a new treaty for new parties not now part of the KP (like the US) and they will be linked in some fashion so that, for example, an emission abatement ambition in one triggers an emission abatement ambition in another.

If I’m right about this then there is a substantive objection here to the Danish text. I’m afraid though that if we don’t get a compromise agreement out of this meeting in the next few hours (or into emergency session tomorrow), or something better like the framework for a new binding agreement, then it is time to walk away from the UNFCCC.

Why? Because, quite simply we cannot get to the goal of the IPCC recommendation of cutting global emissions in half by 2050 only through the binding commitments of developed countries. Obama and the other leaders of the industrialized states have embraced this goal, along with the mandate that these parties cut their emissions by 80% by 2050 to meet it (that far out the base line doesn’t matter, do the math), and that we stop temperature rise at 2 degrees C over pre-industrial levels. But even if we do all that we don’t hit the 50 percent cuts by 2050 targets. We need the participation of the six major emitters in the in the developing world (China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, South Africa, and Mexico) and we need them to think about peaking soon. Not before us but not that far after either.

The weird thing about this process is that while the official UNFCCC talks have mired in worthless bickering the alternative forums such as the G20 and the Major Economies Forum (bringing together the 17 largest emitters in the world monthly since last April) have produced ample bilateral and mulilateral success stories of the past year. That is where the central mandate of the Bali Action Plan — that developing countries will eventually take on MRVable targets in exchange for assistance with technology and finance — has advanced. If the UNFCCC is a forum where it’s procedural arcane can never get an agreement on mitigation then we need to move those discussions elsewhere to a forum where the largest emitters can actually talk to each other, soberly and rationally. These forums have proved their worth the last year and they may have to step it up.

Those worried that this means a small number of countries deciding the fate of the planet need not be concerned. For one thing, I’d rather the major emitters move on to the emissions reductions they need (since they can get us to the various markers to safety by 2050 without the smaller countries decreasing their emissions a whit) rather than nothing moving forward out of the UNFCCC. Given that all the major emitters are (or I believe are about to) embrace the 2 degree C threshold then some commitment on their part to do that should be enough.

I also think that whereas mitigation is something a small number of countries can do, who are responsible for 85% of emissions worldwide, solving adaptation, financing, and sectoral agreements like forestry, is an ideal forum for the UN. That should be the purview of this body. A rapid response to helping people. I believe they’ve attempted this before.

So, what will happen today. Since last night I think that the leaders have come in and said yes to a lot of things as predicted. The Chinese, though waffling on the terms, have signaled their intention to reconsider an interim agreement (though look for it to possibly be introduced by someone other than the Danes). I think that by the end of the day we may very well have that compromise agreement discussed in Singapore last month and then the heavy lift will be to fill in the gaps by the next UN summit. If they don’t manage to this, and the talks this morning between Obama and two dozen global leaders are reportedly in flux, it’s time for the planet to move on to plan B.

UPDATE 12/18/2009: It is now clear that the text on the table is the interim political agreement proposed by the Danes — confirmed by Prime Minister Hatoyama of Japan in his address on the floor.  I’me very pleased to see it survive the nonsense of the last two weeks over the “surprise” over it.  This is the agreement that got Obama here.  We’ll see how the debate goes the rest of the day and whether there is an up or down vote on it later this afternoon or tomorrow.

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