Snow Chance?

I started writing this blog yesterday afternoon (Tuesday), on the flight back to Bangkok. A powdery snow began to fall as we took off, the first. As I watched it settle, I couldn’t help but think that the unseasonal sunny outlook with which I started this blog appeared rather inappropriate.

Monday, the last full day of the conference which I attended, was not a day for optimists. There was a logistical failure at the gate throughout the morning (see picture).

Negotiations while u wait

I waited, immobilized for 30 minutes until turning back and attending a meeting at a coffee shop in the city centre. For most of that half hour, the people around me were wearing pink badges, denoting party delegates. Those who weren’t wearing badges were mostly newly-arrived delegates, waiting to be registered. Many had to wait five hours while security personnel told them that, for safety reasons, the venue could hold no more people. The majority of those inside at the time were not negotiators but, like me, observers and thus (again, like me) of little material help in the reaching of an agreement at this COP. I can therefore sympathize with the irritation of the delegates from Brazil who, languishing in unaccustomed cold and impotence, finally dared the guards to restrain them and forced their way in, carrying a few members of the Swiss party along in their wake.

As it happens, they did not miss any crucial negotiations.  Proceedings were on hold for most of the day after the bulk of the African contingent staged a walkout in the morning. This was in response to another ‘Danish text’ from the COP chair, Connie Hedegaard, which had been prepared without the involvement of the majority of non-Annex 1 countries, although this time it was released through formal channels.

The African protest was significant, however, in that it widened further the breach between larger ‘developing’ countries (chiefly China and India), and the poorer, more vulnerable members of G77, which was highlighted by Tuvalu’s intervention last week. Following the Africans out of the negotiations were two other groups which are usually solidly aligned with the G77 – the Association of Small Island States (AOSIS) and the Least Developed Countries (LDC). The issue at the core of the protest concerned the fate of the Kyoto Protocol in a post-2012 regime. In basic terms, this issue cuts three ways:
1) The Kyoto Protocol should stay intact, with annual tweaking at successive COPs (the official G77 position, and that of China and India at present);
2) Kyoto should be ripped up and renegotiated in light of more up-to-date scientific and geopolitical realities (the position of the US, the Umbrella Group of high emitters, and, broadly, of the EU);
3) Kyoto should remain, be strengthened with additional commitments and legal provisions for non-compliance, with Copenhagen Protocols of equal force to supplement it, covering issues that Kyoto left out (such as forestry).

Perhaps naively, I had always presumed that route (3) was the obvious and inevitable course. Kyoto has zero chance of passing a vote in the US Congress, and a complete renegotiation would be equally unacceptable to most of the developing world. Negotiations are built on compromise. Hence a middle way would need to be found. Tuvalu’s proposal, in the spirit of this middle way, now appears to have the backing of the majority of G77 countries, in direct contravention of their official position, and that of China and India, based strictly on an unadulterated Kyoto Protocol. It appears, however, that this crucial decision has been left on the backburner all the while, and it took this late hour walkout to get it back to the centre of the debate.

Ms Hedegaard’s approach to a draft text, involving just 45 countries in consultations (Annex 1 plus key non-Annex 1 emitters China, India, South Africa, Brazil, Indonesia and South Korea) makes cold, rational sense. Agreement in Copenhagen boils down essentially to two issues: money and emission reductions. These 45 countries represent, between them, essentially all of the money and nearly all of the emission reduction potential. Get an agreement between them, and we have a workable solution.

As diplomacy, to put it mildly, the approach lacks delicacy. The 150-odd countries which are not members of  ‘Connie’s Club’ are understandably furious. Ms Hedegaard’s replacement as chair of the talks from yesterday, with the Danish Prime Minister taking the lead, may well be a smart move by the hosts. However, it should not be taken as a further sign of disarray in the Danish ranks and a loss of confidence in Ms Hedegaard. It is likely that this was planned well in advance. There are 120 heads of state now leading their delegations. The majority of these would see it simply as a matter of protocol, or status, that they are chaired by one of their own number.

Brave new Danish Dawn?

This plethora of authority is, moreover, another reason to cling stubbornly to optimism, even in the light of the last few days. Protests may (indeed, will) continue until the last negotiators go home, we may still see more walkouts and brinkmanship. But, as Yvo de Boer has said on more than one occasion, 120 heads of state do not meet on this extraordinary occasion to celebrate failure. They meet to celebrate success. They expect it. And so do I.

Posted by Ben Vickers

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