The Maritim Hotel.

Photo: IISD.

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The Maritim Hotel in Bonn, Germany is the regular site of the bureaucrat-level United Nations climate change meetings that take place between the ministerial sessions known as Conferences of the Parties. The building has the air of the showpiece hotel in an impoverished third-world capital: a chandelier and mirror quotient that’s off the charts, but leaves you feeling oppressed rather than impressed.

In previous years, the intensity of the climate negotiations created a buzz that held people’s attention through night after night of $8 stale-white-bread-and-pink-mayonnaise sandwiches. But since the Bonn Agreement sealed the political deal here last summer, and the Marrakech Accords nailed down the details, the tenor of the meetings have changed. Aside from a couple of headline issues, like defining the word “forest” (I’m not kidding) and establishing whether scientific research should be linked to the negotiations on climate (still not kidding, unfortunately), most of the meetings have been dedicated to dusting off long-shelved agenda items for their day in the gloom of the Maritim’s marbled halls.

But that’s not to say there wasn’t real action; quite the contrary. It wasn’t on the official agenda, but when you come right down to it, this meeting was all about — what else? — the World Cup. The lounge area with the large-screen TV was easily the most well-attended venue at the conference, and the atmosphere of international camaraderie was uplifting, though relations occasionally threatened to deteriorate over the problem of simultaneous matches. Channel-surfing fisticuffs nearly break out over whether Germany-Cameroon or Ireland-Saudi Arabia took precedence. That conflict was resolved using the Peace through Strength tactic when a big German sat right next to the TV.

Somewhere in the middle of the soccer madness, it dawned on the NGO reps in attendance that tapping into the sports mania could be the key to mobilizing international attention and finally getting something done about climate change. On Tuesday, the Climate Action Network news bulletin ECO published research from Great Britain showing a noticeable dip in electricity use during and after the England-Argentina match. A group considering rules for generating carbon dioxide credits from clean energy projects was in attendance, and their excitement was palpable. They were the ones who came up with the signature idea of the meeting: soccer as a mitigation measure. From there, the ideas started flying. What about policies requiring games to be held during peak electricity-use hours as a load-shifting mechanism? Or avoiding night games to cut down on electricity use — play during the day and get solar energy credits?

Unfortunately the whole concept hit an old, familiar adversary: the United States. The rest of the world could go ahead with soccer as a mitigation measure, but the Bush administration had its own plan: baseball. The soccer plan is fatally flawed, the Americans insisted, because it’s only played once a week, whereas baseball is an almost daily event. Furthermore, baseball games can last over twice as long as soccer matches. Even more important, recent studies by the International Panel on Climate Change showed that 34.5 percent of people who watch baseball games on television fall asleep before the 7th inning and can stay that way for hours, dramatically reducing energy use. Finally, the plentiful commercial breaks would provide crucial engagement of the private sector.

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Stung by allegations that the U.S. was further distancing itself from the world community on the climate change issue, American negotiators pointed out that baseball too has a World Series, and the fact that U.S. teams keep winning it only shows their natural superiority. Canadians, who are on the fence about the Kyoto Protocol, eventually decided that they’d prefer to participate in the soccer scheme but should also be eligible for credits from the baseball system. They argue that while they feed two teams into the U.S. league, this only reduces energy use in the U.S., because no one in Canada bothers to watch them.

Negotiations on the issue will continue — after the games, naturally.