The first week of the annual U.N. climate-change summit is usually a relatively sedate affair. Sub-ministerial-level diplomats (or sherpas, so called because they do most of the work) quietly exchange drafts of negotiating texts and trial balloons, while a small number of environmental journalists and activists follow the proceedings. It's not until the second week of talks when ministers, heads of state and protesters show up that the summit really takes off.
Not so in Copenhagen this year. The 15th Conference of the Parties has been an undeniably major event from the start, from the lavish opening ceremony on Dec. 8, which included a video of children literally begging the assembled delegates to save the world, to the largest organized demonstration at the summit on Saturday, attended by an estimated 40,000 to 100,000 environmentalists, climate activists and other protesters. While largely peaceful, the march was accompanied by smaller, more violent protests that led to several hundred arrests.
So far, more than 30,000 diplomats, journalists, activists and businesspeople have crowded the Danish capital twice the number that can fit in the city's Bella Center, where the summit convention is being held and more will arrive in the coming week. At what is perhaps the most important environmental summit in the history of the world, the drama is high. "The time for formal statements is over," said Yvo de Boer, the head of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), at the opening of the summit. "The time has come to reach out to each other. Take up the work that has already been done and turn it into real action."
But at the halfway point of the event, has there been any real action? Some, yes progress continues to be made on less controversial technical issues, like reducing deforestation but not enough to ensure that the conference will come to a successful conclusion. While many nations, including the U.S., China and South Africa, came to the talks armed for the first time with pledges to reduce carbon emissions, a wide gap persists between developed and developing nations on just how deep those cuts need to be and the extent to which rich nations should aid the poor in adapting to and mitigating global warming.
It will be up to ministers and heads of state to bridge that divide in the second week of talks and seal a deal or something close to one. "This is probably the most intense and high-level negotiating session I've ever been to and I've been to all of them," says Alden Meyer, the director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists. "The things that give me hope are all the countries that have made commitment pledges in the months leading up to this. But I wouldn't underestimate the challenge."
As if to underscore the sentiment, a key working group under the UNFCCC released its first official draft for a climate deal on Friday, Dec. 11. Authored by Michael Zammit Cutajar, the chair of the working group, the six-page draft calls for the world to keep temperatures from rising beyond a ceiling of 1.5°C to 2°C above preindustrial levels. To get there, the draft presents several targets for emission reductions from developed countries, ranging from 25% to 45% below 1990 levels by 2020. The paper also recommends that major developing nations aim to reduce emissions to between 15% and 30% below business-as-usual levels over the same time period.
Those are bold goals considerably bolder than anything most countries, rich or poor, have put forward. And while the draft itself is just that, a draft, intended mainly to focus the negotiations going forward, some countries have already taken issue with it, saying it is not tough enough. Early Friday morning, the 43-member Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) released its own draft text calling for a harder global temperature-rise limit (1.5°C) and mandatory emissions cuts for both developed nations and major developing ones like China. Island states like the Maldives and Grenada argue that a 2°C target, which is considered by many scientists to be the safe upper limit for warming, will still result in a high enough sea-level rise to wipe them from existence. "AOSIS members are at the front line of the devastating impacts of climate change," says Dessima Williams, the alliance's lead negotiator.
Meanwhile, the AOSIS proposal attests to yet another rift between countries at Copenhagen this one among the developing countries themselves. Called the Group of 77 Plus China, the confederation of developing nations has generally stuck together in past summits, demanding strong action from rich nations but resisting calls to take on emissions reductions themselves. Now there is a growing disagreement between the poorest and most vulnerable developing nations, which are calling for stricter emissions reductions, and major developing nations like China and India, which are worried about the ramifications of cuts to their economic future.
This is the climate reality: with major developing nations like China almost certain to emit the vast majority of carbon going forward, there is simply no way to meet a more ambitious global climate goal without asking them to eventually cut carbon. It remains to be seen if all the developing nations will close ranks or if the gap between some of them will grow.
That is but one of several questions to be settled in the week ahead. Another centers on how much rich nations will be willing to spend to help developing nations adapt to warming. On Friday, the European Union announced it would give $10.5 billion over the next three years to aid climate adaptation in the developing world. The pledge was some of the most positive concrete news of the week, but long-term financing is still uncertain.
For now, environmentalists are holding out hope that the more than 110 world leaders who will attend the second week of the summit led by President Obama, who will arrive on Dec. 18 will successfully close out the negotiations. "A lot will depend on whether Obama's fellow leaders think he can move the Congress to deliver on carbon cuts and long-term financing and do it in a timely fashion," says Meyer. "It's still possible we could have a negative outcome, but I am feeling more optimistic than when I got here." Undoubtedly, the President feels the pressure. Just as he has been on nearly every other challenge facing the world today, Obama will be key.