Thursday, Dec. 17, 2009

With One Day to Go, Climate Talks Remain Stalled

Yvo de Boer, the Swiss head of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), is about as phlegmatic a bureaucrat as you'll find, but he does have a way with a colorful metaphor. "Where are we on the journey?" de Boer said on Dec. 14, at the halfway point of negotiators' expedition to the top of climate summit. "We're queuing up for the cable car, and the rest of the journey is going to be fast, smooth and relaxed."

On Wednesday night, with talks at a virtual standstill, de Boer described it this way: "The cable car has made an unexpected stop."

Then on Thursday morning, the Copenhagen summit received a much-needed boost from a new player, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had arrived early that day. At a news conference, Clinton told reporters that the U.S. would join with other developed nations to mobilize $100 billion in climate financing by 2020. The offer seemed timed to address one of the main obstacles to negotiation at the Copenhagen summit — the lack of long-term aid from the developed world to help poor nations fight warming — and gave some life to the stalled talks. As de Boer said at a press conference shortly afterward, "Hold tight. Mind the doors. The cable car is moving again."

Clinton's pledge was not unexpected. Observers had anticipated that Clinton, President Barack Obama — who arrives Friday morning — along with a 20-person congressional delegation led by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, would come to Copenhagen ready to bridge the wide gaps between developed and developing nations. Clinton's offer went a long way toward that goal, as poor nations have repeatedly complained that early pledges of aid by rich nations covered only a few years, not the decades of financial aid that global warming will demand.

And yet while U.S. pledges have helped restart talks, they may not be enough, and they may not have come in time. "It's a really positive step in the negotiating process, which is turning into a game of chicken," says Andrew Deutz, the director of international government relations at the Nature Conservancy. "But this is an offer in a negotiating process, and it come as a quid pro quo."

What the U.S. wants in exchange is for developing nations — especially China, the world's new top carbon emitter — to submit to some degree of international verification of their climate actions. As Clinton put it in her remarks: "It would be hard to imagine, speaking for the United States, that there could be the level of financial commitment that I have just announced in the absence of transparency from the second biggest [carbon] emitter — and now I guess the first biggest emitter."

Nor is the $100 billion meant to be a government-to-government gift — much, if not most of the money would come from private sources, probably through various forms of carbon finance within a global deal. Not all of it will come from the U.S. either. Clinton said Washington would pay its "fair share," which, based on similar pledges in the past, might come to 20% or 25% of the total tab. Ultimately, of course, the money is dependent on a global deal actually being struck — and that will still come down to Washington and Beijing. "Both the U.S. and China have been very entrenched in the technical details," says Keya Chatterjee, the U.S. director of the climate change program at the World Wildlife Fund. "Now they have to sit down and really negotiate."

It's not yet clear, as negotiators continue working through what likely will be a very long final night in Copenhagen, exactly how China received Clinton's pledge. But it seems that Beijing may be willing to meet the U.S. halfway on its demand for transparency. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei told reporters after Clinton's talk that Beijing was ready for "dialogue and cooperation that is not intrusive, that does not infringe on China's sovereignty."

In a speech at the summit, Indonesia President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told delegates that all nations, including developing ones, could benefit from a carbon monitoring system. "If we all set our respective targets, we need to know if we are making progress," he said.

Even if diplomats make progress on a deal in Copenhagen, however, it's becoming increasingly clear that any viable agreement will fall far short of the level of carbon cuts that science demands. A paper leaked from, and confirmed to be authentic by, the U.N. on Thursday night contains an assessment of the emissions-reduction pledges put forward so far in Copenhagen. It calculates that even if all developed and developing nations keep their promises, atmospheric carbon concentrations would rise as high as 770 parts per million, and temperatures could rise 3°C by the end of the century. The upper safe zone in temperature rise, according to many scientists, is 2°C, and the limit called for by vulnerable island nations is 1.5°C. "This document shows that for all the U.N. spouts about 2°C, the plan comes nowhere near it," says Bill McKibben, the environmental writer who runs, an environmental group that calls for far deeper carbon cuts. "This is the real Climategate, and it shows that any agreement we sign at this summit will be the equivalent of a suicide pact."

Meanwhile, the talks themselves are still bogged down in petty details. The Group of 77 — an alliance of developing nations — has spent much of the conference complaining about procedural problems and focusing on technical details. After bringing negotiations to a halt on Monday, the group refused to take part in talks on Wednesday night, which meant that by Thursday — even as world leaders were showing up in force — diplomats were back to using the same negotiating text they started with at the start of the week. "We've basically gone back to square four on a 30-square chessboard," says Melinda Kimble, senior vice president of the U.N. Foundation and one of the few outsider experts still allowed to observe the negotiations. "We are no longer negotiating substance. We are only negotiating process."

The obstinacy of the poorest nations stems from their persistent suspicion that the U.N. summit has been stacked against them from the start, and is stoked by anger that their people will suffer from global warming that they did not cause. "We will leave this meeting with a bitter taste in our mouth," said Apisai Ielemia, the prime minister of the island nation of Tuvalu. "The true victims of climate change have not been heard here." With a little over a day of talking time left, and the main event — President Obama — yet to arrive, there is still time for things to fall in place. But as Yvo de Boer might say, the cable car is leaving the station.