Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2009

Frustration Mounts in Copenhagen As Talks Stall

Tuesday was green celebrity day at the Copenhagen climate summit. Environmentally minded movie stars, mayors and Nobel Prize winners appeared on the stage in the capital's Bella Center, trailed by reporters and photographers. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, adding a bit of color to the gray Scandinavian day with his green tie and orange tan, told a packed audience, "It would be terrific if the world's governments reached an agreement and put hard caps on greenhouse gases," while noting that regional and local governments could make huge differences in carbon emissions on their own.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg followed suit, talking tough about the responsibility of cities to push their national governments forward on climate and energy. "They are not going to be the leaders on this — we are," he said.

And former Vice President Al Gore — by far the world's most honored environmentalist — warned that the Arctic ice cap could melt away as early as 2014 if nothing is done to save it. "In the face of effects like these, clear evidence that only reckless fools would ignore, I feel a sense of frustration," on the slow pace of progress, Gore said.

That frustration is increasingly shared by many conference goers — from representatives of poor island countries that could vanish under rising sea levels to the U.N. officials who have been long counting down the clock on climate change to the thousands of angry activists left out in the freezing cold, thanks to an overbooked Bella Center.

Discontent is only escalating as talks remain stalled three days before the end of the summit over an impasse between the two countries with the most influence: the U.S. and China. The disagreement between them is not over emissions reductions — though each country argues the other should cut more — but three words that may come to define the Copenhagen talks: measurable, verifiable and reportable.

The U.S. insists that any actions China takes to curb climate change as part of a global deal must be independently verified and proven. China adamantly refuses international monitoring. "This is a matter of principle," said He Yafei, China's Vice Foreign Minister, in an interview with the Financial Times.

Although environmentalists were buoyed in the lead-up to the summit by China's promise to reduce its carbon intensity 40% to 45% below 2005 levels by 2020, the nation has since held tight to its position that only Beijing will oversee whether and how those voluntary pledges are carried out. That's not good enough for the U.S. "Transparency, in particular, is what will ensure that this agreement becomes operational, not just aspirational," said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in an Op-Ed published on Tuesday in the International Herald Tribune.

Of course, words have various shades of meaning when it comes to U.N. negotiations. Transparency may refer to some form of international checking — or something else altogether. The point is that for the U.S., right now, a climate promise that would be accountable to China's domestic laws alone would not seem to be enough. "The notion of verification is a chance to scrutinize and ask questions and understand the nature of what they or anyone else produces," said a senior Obama Administration official. "That is what we're trying to do."

China, for its part, continues to pin the blame for the slow progress of the negotiations on rich nations, including the U.S., which Beijing feels are still not committing enough. Rich nations, meanwhile, do not consider China to be fairly grouped with other developing countries or in need of foreign aid. It appears that one area of contention may be settled — China has said it probably will not take a share of climate adaptation aid — but Beijing is still talking tough with just a few days to go. "The Copenhagen conference has now entered a crucial stage and made some progress, but some problems and differences still exist," said a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman on Tuesday at a briefing in Beijing. "If the talks have encountered some difficulties and made slow progress, the main reason is that developed countries have moved backward on the key issues of funding and technology."

Certainly, the U.S. and other developed nations could give more aid and cut emissions more deeply — they may do so by the end of the week — but some yielding by China on the issue of transparency will be necessary to craft a global deal. The U.S. Senate will never sign on to another climate deal that, like the Kyoto Protocol, seems to give a free ride to Beijing; just weeks ago, a group of Senators wrote a letter to President Obama on the subject. Knowing the U.S.'s stance, China may be willing to negotiate, though it will no doubt bargain hard. "They haven't changed yet on this issue," says Barbara Finamore, China program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "On the other hand, they have said they want a success in Copenhagen."

Ultimately, it will come down to the U.S. and China to decide whether the overcrowded, chaotic climate summit concludes as a success or an expensive failure. "This is the time where they should exercise the leadership," said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a speech in Copenhagen on Tuesday. "This is the time to stop pointing fingers, and this is a time to start looking in the mirror and offering what they can do more."

Meanwhile, the rest of the summit's participants, and the world, watch and wait.