Grist's coverage of Copenhagen climate talks

RutschbanenThe Rutschbanen roller coaster.Photo courtesy wikimedia commonsCOPENHAGEN — The Danish capital’s famous Tivoli gardens boasts an equally celebrated roller coaster. Built in 1914, it is the oldest all-wooden one still operating in the world; being at the climate summit here over the last two days has felt like taking as ride on it.

In truth, the 15,000 people from over 190 nations attending the summit were always in for a series of stomach-wrenching ups and downs as the vital talks proceeded, with hope alternating with despair. But few expected that the roller coaster ride would start so violently and so soon.

The summit opened with more optimism than I can remember for any similarly difficult negotiations over the last 40 years, with a widespread and growing belief that a worthwhile agreement to get global warming under control could be struck by over 100 heads of government when they arrive towards the end of next week. But within just two days the hopes were being dashed by a revolt by the world’s poorest countries against the very basis of the proposed deal.

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Sign Up for More News from GristBut better to start by focusing on the hope. The delegates arrived at the cavernous concrete Bella Center on the outskirts of Copenhagen with the wind at their backs, both figuratively and literally. But if anything, the warm zephyr of momentum towards a deal was blowing even more strongly than the bitterly cold winds blowing across the flat land of Denmark all the way from the Russian steppes.

Over the past few weeks, remarkable progress had been made on the two most difficult issues facing the summit -– rapidly reducing the world’s emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, and providing finance for the world’s poorest countries to help them cope with the devastating effects of climate change.

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Country after country had put offers on the table to cut emissions (in the case of rich nations) or to reduce their rate of growth (in the case of fast-growing countries in the developing world). Though the pledges do not yet add up to enough to avert dangerous climate change, they come in at far more than was expected -– particularly at a time of recession — only a few months ago.

The UN Environment Programme and Britain’s Grantham Research Institute, chaired by Lord Stern, jointly published a study (.doc) the day before the meeting opened which concluded that the best offers by rich countries to cut emissions and by industrializing ones to reduce their rate of growth already amounted to up to 80 percent of what was needed to meet the lower end of what scientists say will be required. Much of the difference, it added, could be made up of measures to reduce the felling of forests and to reduce pollution from shipping and aviation.

And Yvo de Boer, the top official in change of the negotiations, reported “encouraging” progress on agreeing on a $10 billion a year emergency fund to help poor countries. The United States, Australia, Japan, and the EU have all supported it.

Lars Lokke Rasmussen, Prime Minister of Denmark — the man who will chair the summit of more than a hundred heads of governments when they arrive next week — said that “intensive consultations” with the leaders had revealed that “without exception” they backed “an ambitious agreement to halt global warming.” Connie Hedegaard, his minister for energy and climate, added; “I have never seen anything like it when it comes to political willingness.”

While stressing the many obstacles ahead, she described a deal as “do-able.” Gordon Shepherd of the WWF International put it more colorfully: “We are within spitting distance, but its a very long spit!”

By Tuesday evening, however, the spitting had begun in earnest, and it was directed at the very foundations of the agreement itself. The catalyst was the leak of a draft text for the agreement drawn up by the Danish government in consultation with other rich countries and gradually being circulated among industrializing developing ones.

The text contains provisions that the Third World does not like — downplaying the existing Kyoto Protocol, to which they are attached, and giving powers to the World Bank (which rich countries control) at the expense of the United Nations. But these were less important than the fact that it brought to a head growing frustration among poorer nations that a deal was being made behind their backs.

Any deal would aim to keep global warming below two degrees centigrade, a goal agreed by rich and rapidly industrializing countries at a special summit in L’Aquila, Italy, last summer. But the poorest countries have been becoming increasingly convinced that only a much lower increase (1.5 degrees) would give them a chance of avoiding disaster.

On Tuesday evening the growing pressure caused an explosion. Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping, chief negotiator for the Group of 77, which represents developing countries, said the two-degree target “exposes over 100 countries to suffering and devastation,” leading to the disappearance of low-lying island nations and “certain death” for Africa.

He added that, in supporting the deal, President Obama was condemning “the cousins and extended family of his own daughters to be destroyed to preserve the interests of the few.” And he said that the $10 billion-a-year fund, promoted by UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, would not be enough “to buy the poor nations the coffins.”

His remarks resonate so strongly because scientists say the world is already on course for a rise of 1.5 degrees. Meeting his demand, therefore, would mean a rapid phase out of emissions, plus active measures to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. There is no way that rich countries — or even the industrializing ones — will agree to that in Copenhagen.

No doubt, hopes will rise again in the next few days; the summit is still at the stage when initial negotiating positions are being staked out. There will be many ups and downs on the roller coaster before the hair-rising ride comes to a conclusion next weekend.

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