Global climate deal unlikely at Copenhagen

Posted: 9 November 2009

Author: John Vidal

The last formal negotiations, in Barcelona, before the global summit on climate change in Copenhagen, concluded in disarray on Friday 6th November, though it now appears that many heads of state are likely to attend the Copenhagen conference, including Gordon Brown, in an effort to give more negotiating weight to the event. But, says John Vidal, in this dispatch to The Guardian, developing countries are threatening to walk out of the December conference unless rich countries commit themselves to far greater cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

While the countries remain officially optimistic that a strong global warming treaty can be struck, they are privately braced for a weak outcome which heads of state will sign, but the public and scientists will condemn as much too little to prevent catastrophic global warming.

High tide Tuvalu
High tide Tuvalu
On Tuvalu, where the highest ground is just 4.5 metres above mean tide level, islanders nervously await 'king tides', the year's highest tides. Photo © FOEI/Gary Braasch
In addition, the US and Europe have put themselves on a collision course with the world's poorest countries by repeating demands that the existing Kyoto treaty be scrapped in favour of a single new international treaty.

It was announced by the UN that more than 40 heads of state have agreed to go to Copenhagen, including Gordon Brown and others from Europe, Africa and South America, and many more are expected. It is recognition that the only way a legally binding deal will be concluded is with the highest level political involvement.

Ironically, the involvement of the heads of state will give negotiators much less time to bridge what appears to be nearly insurmountable gaps between positions, thereby forcing the talks to continue well into 2010. Last week, the US, EU and UK accepted that an enforceable deal would take at least six months to finalise.

"Little progress was made [at Barcelona] on the key issues of emission targets and finance that would allow developing countries to limit their emissions and adapt to climate change," said Yvo de Boer, the UN director of the talks. "Without these two pieces of the puzzle in place we will not have a deal. Leadership at the highest level is now required to unlock the pieces".

The 130 developing countries represented by the G77 group said they would walk out of Copenhagen if rich countries did not offer far deeper emission cuts and more money. "If there are no ambitious targets and timetables in the first few days then there will definitely be a reaction," said Lumumba Di-Aping, chair of the G77.

Jonathan Pershing, the US chief negotiator, denied the US was holding up the talks by not naming a figure for its cuts and refused to say whether the US would go to Copenhagen with a figure. "If we were to do a 17 per cent reduction or a 20 per cent cut I'm not sure it would make a difference to the talks," he said.

But the UN, EU and NGOs all said the US was endangering years of negotiations, and hopes of tackling global warming, if it did not come up with firm targets. "We need a figure from the US. It is very important for a deal to have the biggest emitter there with a concrete figure which should be legally binding," said Anders Torrson, the Swedish chief negotiator.

"A US target is essential. If the US can deliver that target [in Copenhagen] that will give a critical signal," said de Boer.

NGOs said there was everything still to play for. "This is the darkest hour. There is enough time. Consensus is not forming around a weak deal. That is only wishful thinking by industrialised countries. Developing countries are fighting for their survival," said Greenpeace climate director Martin Kaiser.

"The EU countries should be prepared to cut themselves loose from the US or risk losing a climate deal. World leaders cannot wait while the US plays catch-up. Rich countries are using the US as an excuse to put their national interests above alleviating the suffering of the millions of people," said Antonio Hill, climate adviser for Oxfam.

In a series of impassioned speeches, poor countries accused the US and EU of putting the talks and planet at risk. "They are negotiating for themselves and not humanity," said Angelica Navarro, Bolivian ambassador to Switzerland. "They must go beyond the individual interests of each country and put the interests of the world first."

However, progress was made on a technology agreement, reducing emissions from deforestation in poor countries, and ways to distribute funds to help countries adapt to climate change.

Centres of technological excellence are likely to be set up around the world which would have staff trained to help poor countries with renewable energy.

John Vidal is environment editor of The Guardian and a trustee of Planet 21, which publishes this website.

© Guardian News and Media Limited 2009