Copenhagen: concession and compromise

Climate negotiations are always a balancing act. But the global atmosphere is not a politician, and it won't forgive us if we get this wrong

Exasperation has shown on the faces of many in Denmark this week. On the faces of activists, hoping to inspire and challenge, but instead met with dogs and pepper spray. On the faces of NGO workers, accredited for admission into the Bella Center but blocked because of last-minute security clamp-downs. On the faces of delegations from smaller countries, who - according to one report - were left queueing in the cold outside the negotiations.

But most of all, exasperation has shown on the faces of the politicians charged with crossing the quicksand of perhaps the most highly charged international negotiation in history.


Connie Hedegaard, the veteran Danish minister for Climate and Energy and one of the few politicians whom environmentalists would say 'gets it', was faced with an uprising by the G77 plus China representatives last week as she chaired the negotiations, and failed to allay developing countries' fears of an inequitable deal.

She stepped down this week to allow her Prime Minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, to take the helm of the talks as higher-level dignitaries started to arrive. But, as this video clip shows, Rasmussen faced an equal if not more challenging rebellion in the negotiating chamber, lambasted by an iron coalition of Brazil, India and China for daring to suggest that he would not allow 'procedure' to get in the way of results.

Even more pitiable emotions were painted on the face of the stalwart Yvo de Boer, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, when he attempted to act as an envoy to explain to disgruntled activists why they were not allowed inside the Bella Center. In this remarkable video, the strain of nine days of negotiations is plain to see. 'Do you want to talk to me or do you want to fight me?' he snaps at heckling activists.

A game of nerves

And, in that phrase, de Boer pretty much summed up COP15. One by one, weapons have been put down and significant compromises made. Tired, frustrated and perhaps aware of how history would judge them, negotiators have started to make significant concessions.

A good compromise seems to be on the table for carbon capture and storage - money has been put forward by developed countries for some serious trial projects, but the technology has importantly been excluded for the time being from the Clean Development Mechanism. This means that it can't be used to offset the emissions of industrialised nations - an important decision, especially since we still have no idea whether it will actually work.

One of the most controversial concessions has come from the African Union delegation, whose leader for the end of the talks, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, offered to accept climate aid amounting to half that which his fellow leaders had previously demanded. Why?
'I know my proposal today will disappoint some Africans, who from the point-of-view of justice have asked for full compensation for the damage done to our development prospects,' Zenawi said. 'My proposal scales back our expectation with regards to the level of funding, in return for more reliable funding and a seat at the table in the management of any such fund.'

No, Zenawi should not have had to offer up such a compromise just to ensure that funding targets would be met, and no, Africa should not have to trade off on vital funds just for a 'seat at the table'. But it is probably no exaggeration to say that Zenawi's actions unstuck a huge tranche of previously logjammed negotiation, a prize he clearly considered worth the huge price he paid.

And finally, it should be recognised that for the US to have put a figure on its planned emissions cuts (meagre though it is), and to agree to paying substantial (though insufficient) levels of climate aid, is a scenario that would have been unthinkable even 12 months ago.

The limits

The real question is, how far can the compromises go? Draft negotiating texts leaked yesterday evening suggest that the current emissions cuts on the table would still see us headed into a world where we have only a fifty:fifty chance of keeping global temperature rises below 2°C. In other words, a coin toss away from nightmare. Some analyses are saying that the targets lock us into a 3°C future.

Actually for once, the numbers are pretty simple here. The leaked draft suggests that COP15 has to extract commitments today that shave off another 4.2 billion tonnes of CO2 from the total amount permissible by 2020 to have a decent chance of staying below 2°C of warming. Even the maximum potential pledges on the table at the moment would still mean missing the target by 1.9 billion tonnes - an unacceptable margin.

One meeting was never going to save the world; compromises always have to be made and solutions are never pefect. But landing ourselves with coin-toss odds of global catastrophe would simply be a compromise too far.

Delegates of COP15, the hand of history truly rests on your shoulders today.

Mark Anslow is editor of the Ecologist

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