Thursday, Dec. 17, 2009

In Copenhagen's Dark Mood, a Ray of Light for Forests

Nobody expected an actual, legal treaty to come out of the two-week climate summit in Copenhagen. But when recalcitrant countries like the U.S. and China pledged real climate action in the weeks leading up to the conference, there was genuine optimism that negotiators might finally push past the deadlock that has stalled action for years. "Here at Copenhagen we have an opportunity to realign the way that nations deal with each other," said Senator John Kerry in a speech at the summit on Wednesday. "The stewardship of the planet and our appetite for resources will be imagined in a new way and a new era."

But the reality, with only two days of official negotiating time left, is that Copenhagen will redefine very little about the global climate debate. Any hope of progress is quickly evaporating, subsumed by increasing frustration. Barring a last-minute development — which is yet technically possible, with more than 100 world leaders still arriving to take a direct hand in the negotiations — the Copenhagen summit will end up a symbol of failure. Environmentalists say it will be remembered as the moment that world leaders knew what was coming and chose not to act. "There is absolutely no guarantee of success," said Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, one of the first world leaders to arrive in Copenhagen. "I'm just telling it like it is."

That despair was apparent outside the Bella Center as well, where police clashed violently with demonstrators on Wednesday. Dressed in full riot gear and wielding truncheons and pepper spray, Danish police warded off the mostly young protesters, arresting more than 200. Some of the demonstrators were members of NGOs whose accreditation were revoked for the final few days of the conference; the U.N. and the host country has further restricted access to the talks now that heads of state are arriving in the city. The police lockdown at the Bella Center is so severe that even well-known delegates — including Rajendra Pachauri, head of the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — were reportedly hassled trying to enter.

For the final two days of the summit, only a few hundred NGO representatives will be allowed inside (more than 20,000 were accredited), and the press will be restricted to just a few sections of the Bella Center. "Civil society is being squeezed dramatically," says Frances Beinecke, the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who waited eight hours in the cold for her pass on Monday. "These meetings depend on the urgency of the people outside. This is a global issue."

If the overzealous security and logistical snafus did not directly impact the negotiations, they did imbue what should have been a moment of global cooperation with an oppressive, distrustful air. By the end of day on Wednesday, talks were still sputtering. Developing countries accuse the developed world of trying to impose consensus from above, while the U.S. and China remain locked in a battle over the accountability of China's pledges and the severity of emissions cuts.

Danish Climate Minister Connie Hedegaard, who had been the president of the summit, resigned in the middle of the day, replaced by Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen. The reasons had to do mostly with protocol — with so many world leaders taking a hand in the talks, it made sense for a head of state to take over — but the sudden change heightened the atmosphere of uncertainty and chaos.

Negotiators had aimed to address most of the major disagreements by the time their bosses arrived at the talks, but with just two days left, divisions remain wide on nearly all issues: emissions targets, aid for poor nations, monitoring, the fate of the Kyoto Protocol. The draft negotiating text being circulated among the delegations "contains an awful lot of potential landmines," says Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The hope is that heads of state will have the power to settle some of the stickiest problems quickly — after all, they don't have to wire back to their capitals for orders. But while they may have the authority, they often lack expertise. Climate negotiations are fiendishly complex, and Presidents are typically not well versed in the intricacies of monitoring, reporting and verification. "They're not chefs," says Meyer. "They're used to appreciating the soufflé, not cooking it."

But for all the gloomy atmosphere in Copenhagen, where the sun has not shined in days, there has been progress on less controversial issues, including Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD), which would allow developed nations to pay countries to preserve their rain forests and earn carbon credits. A draft text presented to the delegations on Wednesday had most, if not all, of the major issues ironed out. And REDD got another boost on Wednesday when U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that the U.S. would commit $1 billion over the next three years to help protect tropical forests. Negotiators of the draft text say far more will eventually be needed, somewhere north of $20 billion, but the U.S. pledge is a good start and perhaps the first of many others. "This is kick-start money," says Andrew Deutz, the Nature Conservancy's director of international government relations. "It could help dislodge the negotiations."

Of course, a successful REDD accord is ultimately dependent on a successful climate treaty, and some environmental groups caution that if it is not designed correctly, a REDD system could end up wasting carbon and ultimately discredit avoided deforestation. "If it goes wrong, the market is going to lose confidence in REDD, and you can't put that genie back in the bottle," says Louis Leonard, director for U.S. policy on international climate affairs at the World Wildlife Fund.

Still, the optimism with regard to REDD shows that progress can be made when all parties to a negotiation feel they have something to gain. In Copenhagen, unfortunately, the interests of developed and developing nations seem irrevocably at odds. In part, that divide has to do with the outmoded categories into which nations are still segregated. "2009 is different from Kyoto," Kerry told reporters. "There we drew a distinction [between developed and developing nations]. Today we don't have the luxury of distinction. We're all in this together."