RECAP: The first week of COP15.

RECAP: The first week of COP15.

 A look back at the first week at COP15 and a foreshadowing of what might lie ahead.


The first week of official COP15 negotiations has passed and environmental ministers from the 192 countries participating in the talks will now review several draft texts in order to seal a deal before heads of state arrive this week.

So what is the current state of negotiations?

Two issues are driving talks – emissions targets and money – with an agreement on deforestation emerging as important sub-issue.

Prior to the start of COP15, the possibility of a deal in Copenhagen lurched forward ever so slightly when several countries, most importantly the U.S., India and China, committed to emissions cuts. And Gordon Brown proposed a funding source to help poor and developing countries adapt to the impacts of climate change and to help them produce greater amounts of clean energy. At the same time, though, many heads of state sought to tone down expectations that COP15 would lead to a legally binding treaty, focusing instead on achieving a "political agreement" that would be finalized in mid-2010.

Amidst these new offers and plummeting hopes of what would be achieved at COP15 came news that emails from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit, where several leading climate scientists are based, had been hacked and published on the internet. Although in no way undermining the soundness of climate science, the tone of the emails and suggestion that scientists had used "tricks" to explain recent cooling of atmospheric temperatures, was seized upon by the climate change denial movement. Sarah Palin editorialized about it and Congressional Republicans promised to take the issue to Copenhagen. The emergence of the hacked emails has had little impact, though, on the summit itself.

Another revelation, however, did shift the tone of the talks. The Guardian published a draft Danish text from the eerily named "Circle of Commitment" that was chaired by the Danes and included the U.S. The contents of the draft were of little surprise but angered many delegates from poor and low-lying countries in confirming that developed countries were secretly negotiating outside of the UNFCCC process and seeking to ram through an agreement at COP15. The talks didn’t fall into "disarray" as the Guardian article asserted but there was a palpable sense of crisis in the halls of the Bella Center. Many delegates and negotiators from poor and low-lying countries that I spoke with following the leak argued that they came to negotiate – openly and in good faith – at COP15 and were disappointed by the emergence of the Danish text.

And what are the concerns of those countries from Africa, South America, and the low-lying countries close to the world’s oceans? A draft treaty proposed by the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) on Friday best articulates them. The document is really two treaties – one that would extend the Kyoto Protocol to 2017 and a "Copenhagen Treaty" that would commit the U.S. to a binding agreement among many other strong proposals. The AOSIS proposal has become a rallying point for countries most at threat of desertification, drought or flooding and most in need of assistance to adapt to those threats and to build clean energy infrastructures.

The AOSIS draft also illuminates an important development in the way these talks are being discussed. The developed-developing country binary has been shattered by the distinct demands of the poor and low-lying nations that are spelled out in the AOSIS proposal, which focus on setting strong emissions targets both developed and developing economies, securing substantial funding for adaptation and mitigation, and lowering the target for global temperature increase from 2 degrees Celsius to “well below” 1.5 degrees. Agreeing to a 2 degree ceiling, according to the G77 spokesperson, was a “suicide pact” that would mean the deaths of millions of Africans.

Developed countries – the U.S. as well as several E.U. countries – are applying pressure on Brazil, India, and China to reduce the "carbon intensity" of their emissions. Conversely, these developing countries seek money to convert their energy infrastructures from fossil fuel intensive ones to systems utilizing greater amounts of renewables. The push and pull between these blocks is distinct from the demands represented in the AOSIS proposal, which calls for much greater amounts of money, more substantial emissions cuts from both developed and developing nations, and seeks strong protections for indigenous people and forest ecosystems. More importantly, some nations – Bolivia chiefly – have sought to shift the frame of reference of the talks by problematizing the economic system, consumer demand, and respect for "Mother Earth", arguing that climate change is a symptom of a disease – namely economic globalizaton.

The same day that AOSIS released their text, the first official drafts emerged from the two working groups within the UNFCCC negotiating process. Together, they breathed new life into Kyoto by calling for an extension of the treaty to 2017 and seeking to tie the U.S. to binding cuts, reiterating that developed countries’ were most responsible for creating global warming and therefore most responsible for making the greatest commitments to reducing it. The various texts also revealed deep divisions and disagreements within the negotiations. Large sections of text were bracketed for further negotiation. The divisions among countries were deepening and the clock was ticking.

In response to the various texts circulating on Friday, Todd Stern, lead U.S. climate negotiator, admitted that the U.S. had a responsibility to act and that he understood the concerns of low-lying and African nations. But, he added, without new emissions cuts being proposed by major developing nations there would be little hope of a breakthrough.

On Saturday, members of the Tuvalu delegation made an impassioned plea before the morning’s plenary session. Why, they asked, was the world being held hostage by a handful of U.S. Congress people? Indeed, the specter of U.S. Congressional intransigence has permeated the Bella Center, only to be reinforced by Stern’s comment. At a moment when, daily, scientific report after peer-reviewed scientific report, warning of even greater risk of ecological damage, was presented at COP15, Senators Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman announced they were amending the Senate’s climate change bill by lowering the proposed emission target, increasing funding for nuclear energy, and providing boosts to fossil fuel industries. It was U.S. exceptionalism and defiance in its most grotesque form.

If there’s going to be an agreement, it will come down mostly to money. The E.U. might offer more money and the U.S. might provide a counteroffer. There might be some movement on emissions targets from the E.U. but with the Senate’s recent reduction of its emissions target, the door seems to be closed on Obama offering greater cuts. Offers of financing, particularly around addressing deforestation, might woo a number of developing and poor countries and secure their commitment for a deal. The poor and low-lying countries demands for funding and 1.5 degree Celsisus will remain unmet. After all, this summit is about politics and the G77 nations (which actually represents 130 nations), while putting forward the strongest proposals and the most compelling testimony about what is a stake, lack the political muscle, at the moment, to shift the frame. The international climate justice movement will have to do the heavy lifting on that problem.

But time is short at COP15.

So It seems the hands of the G77 and AOSIS are tied and it seems unlikely that they will gather enough momentum around their proposals to shift the terms of debate at COP15. The international climate justice movement, in its attempt to call attention to some of those very issues and to agitate for systemic change, could be an instrumental ally. A lot of heavy lifting is needed to shift discussions about climate change and build political power.

Hold onto your seats. These negotiations will come down to the wire. But one thing seems certain as they head into their final stage: if an agreement emerges from COP15, it’s not being driven by science; it’s being driven by geopolitics. It won’t bring atmospheric CO2 levels below 350 ppm; won’t adequately fund adaptation and mitigation efforts; and will not lead to a strong international agreement. Which begs certain question for the climate justice movement, whether inside or outside of the talks: what do we do after COP15?

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