Analysis: COP15 deal still distant

The UN Secretary-General called world leaders to New York last month to mobilise political will for a deal on climate change. E&T analyses the atmosphere.

In yet another sign of UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown's difficulties, pundits briskly dismissed his recent claim that December's Copenhagen Summit on climate change, COP15, is in "grave danger" of failing to deliver international agreement. It was, they averred, a comment from a politician trying to divert the focus from his own local problems. But in spite of this, Brown may be absolutely right.

Late last month, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon gathered world leaders in New York for a day-long pre-Copenhagen meeting because he too feels that negotiations are becoming worryingly bogged down.

In July, the G8 nations agreed to take steps that will limit global warming to a 2°C rise in temperature and to cut their own greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. Since then, however, talks have barely advanced and there remain fewer than 15 days on which the various national teams can meet before COP15 begins.

Ban's goal in New York was to re-energise the process. In this regard, he felt the meeting had been successful. "Today marked the moment when the political momentum shifted," he said, in his closing address. "Something that has been missing for the past few months has returned."

Indeed, several successes at the summit included a commitment from Chinese President Hu Jintao that his country would cut its emissions per unit of GDP by a "notable margin" by 2020 against 2005 levels. Although no specific number was attached, it was a significant diplomatic shift from China's hitherto "you go first" attitude to targets.

But only a few hours later - specifically after a closed dinner of leaders that evening - it began to emerge that serious concerns remained, and at a high level.

Yvo de Boer is executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, a formal title that denotes him as the organisation's point man on the topic. Speaking after that dinner to the New York Bar Association, he said that he could now see COP15 producing no more than a "set of decisions". This is diplomat-speak for "No treaty".

Countries might agree that a programme of certain actions with certain objectives would be a good idea, but there would be no binding targets, no formal or global oversight and no recognised structures in such critical areas as financing to support developing nations and the transfer of necessary technology to them.

De Boer did acknowledge that this is only one possible outcome. Others include a new treaty replacing the Kyoto Protocol, a new treaty or binding decision(s) extending Kyoto, and a new treaty with certain parts set aside in 'decisions'.

Several factors still make the last of those the most likely outcome. As noted by Connie Hedegaard, the Danish minister for climate and energy and thus one of the key drivers for COP15: "I don't think we will get a deal on absolutely everything."

At the same time though, the 'no treaty' option had not been on the table for de Boer until late September. So, what happened?

The elephant in the room - although it isn't alone - remains the US. Referring to the position facing President Barack Obama, de Boer said: "I think he is preoccupied with a whole bunch of other issues that he has to get out of the way before he can get to climate change."

Indeed, although Obama is personally seen as proactive on greenhouse gases, he still has to carry of a lot of economic (as opposed to scientific) sceptics. In this context, his speech to the UN meeting was surprisingly poor, even platitudinous, and he was upstaged not only by China's Hu, but also by Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed ("If things go business as usual, we will not live, we will die. Our country will not exist.") and Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who had been in office for less than a week at the time.

Obama did sign up to the G8 agreement and can already list achievements that prove his administration does not share the scepticism of his predecessor's. The US has classified carbon dioxide as a pollutant so that the country's Environmental Protection Agency can take steps against emitters without new legislation. There is a bill that has passed the House of Representatives, the junior body in Congress, that includes formal caps on emissions.

"It is true that for too many years, mankind has been slow to respond to or even recognise the magnitude of the climate threat. It is true of my own country as well. We recognise that," Obama said. "But this is a new day. It is a new era. And I am proud to say that the United States has done more to promote clean energy and reduce carbon pollution in the last eight months than at any other time in our history."

A necessary mea culpa, but - before an audience that included many who had negotiated the Kyoto Protocol and for whom the US rejection of that treaty remains both a fresh and a bitter memory - what Obama did not say was more important.

Two important specifics here are, first, that the Senate, the senior body in Congress, has its own climate change bill which does not include emissions caps; and second, that while it will also look at the House's bill, the Senate majority leader and Obama's fellow Democratic Party grandee, Harry Reid, has said that this will not happen until 2010, after COP15.

For many climate change veterans like de Boer, this has disturbing echoes of not merely what happened post-Kyoto but also what happened at the summit itself. There, too, a US President turned up still looking for something the House and Senate would ratify rather than being armed with what he already knew they would accept - and when he returned, both Republican and Democratic politicians shot Bill Clinton down in flames.

Clinton's vice president and Nobel Laureate Al Gore did say that the US could get things done in Copenhagen without prior legislation - indeed, he rightly noted that in political terms having an Act in place could cut two ways, giving Obama more credibility but also tying his hands. However, his cautious tone made it clear that Gore also shares the institutional memory of what happened last time.

Another issue here is that it is not just China or the other rising and developing economies that are insisting on more from the US. The inherent frustration in Gordon Brown's comment is shared by both French President Nicolas Sarkozy (who proposed but was rebuffed on an idea for yet another pre-COP15 high-level summit to maintain momentum) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Even Obama's closest allies are becoming visibly impatient.

Meanwhile, the Danish politicians who will chair the conference are indulging in some 'tough love'. Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen and his minister Hedegaard make an effective 'good cop-bad cop' diplomatic double act, stressing the need to bring the US into a deal but also warning Obama that his country's technological, economic and moral pre-eminence are probably at stake.

But perhaps the final thought should concern a British ex-Prime Minister, Tony Blair. There were some who expressed surprise at his comment just before the UN meeting that getting a deal on climate change could be even more difficult that resolving Northern Ireland. After the meeting, however, he looked as much on-the-money as his successor.

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